Everything I Know I Learned from Comics:

Some Words of Advice for the Inquisitive Child

I remember the moment I learned who I was as a reader. I was at the library, taking out a copy of Encyclopedia Brown Saves the Day for what was probably the fifth or sixth time. When I got to the counter, the librarian—who knew me well enough—peered down at me over the rims of her spectacles and asked a question that was to have a profound impact on my life.

“You’re such a good little reader, and you’re in here all the time,” she said, looking slightly put out. “Why don’t you challenge yourself?”

The impact of this was not, as one might expect, that I decided right then and there to “put away childish things.” I was ten or eleven at the time, so that wasn’t happening. Instead, I remember thinking that despite her age and obvious love of books and also apparent interest in my intellectual well-being, the librarian was—in a way that was undeniable—profoundly wrong. I also knew that if she could have taken a look at the shelf in my room, she would have found a selection of books that showed I had no interest in joining the ranks of adolescents whose parents try to get them to read the “classics” and thereby pass a death sentence on their careers as young readers. My bookshelves growing up were lined with Encyclopedia Brown, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and that guiltiest of guilty pleasures, the Trixie Belden series. You can have your Hardy Boys and your Nancy Drew. Make mine the Bob-Whites of the Glen.

When I was a child, I really did speak as a child and understand as a child and think as a child, and that led me straight to books that developed my curiosity, because, of course, I had the curiosity of a child. What these books all had in common—books that incidentally led me directly to comics—was that they were, at their most fundamental level, participatory in nature. I could solve the mysteries right alongside Encyclopedia Brown, wonder aloud how Trixie, Honey, and the Bob-Whites were going to figure out some important riddle or clue, and actually construct my own adventures through what was (and is) the most important second-person narrative in the history of children’ literature: Edward Packard’s The Cave of Time. An important part of the participatory element in all of these books was the illustrations. In the mystery books, they allowed me to look with Encyclopedia Brown or Trixie and her friends at the vital clues that were so central to solving the mystery. In the Choose Your Own Adventure books, I was ostensibly looking at myself on the deck of the sinking Titanic, or involved in a gunfight on the streets of Deadwood City, or being swallowed by a giant grouper when all I wanted to do was to find the lost city of Atlantis.

It’s no small wonder, then, that I soon found comics, and it was a marriage of childhood curiosity and captivating sequential art that was, for lack of a better metaphor, made in heaven. Indeed, as I look back at my introduction to comics, and to the heroes and villains of the Marvel and DC Universes I had “discovered,” I can’t help but arrive at the statement that serves as the title of this piece: Everything I know I learned from comics. You might be thinking that comics can’t be responsible for everything I know. I’m not so sure, however.

Comics gave me a rich vocabulary—not just more words that I could use in an English paper or in a conversation around the dinner table, but a deeper and more profound understanding of what these words meant. After all, my learning of them was tied to a visual experience that allowed me to “see” how these words I was learning looked in the “real” world. Comics taught me the language people use when something really really matters—like the-fate-of-the-world-is-at-stake matters—and I could tell what a word that was describing someone’s emotions meant from looking at the expression on the character’s face or in their body language. I didn’t think about it when I was a kid, but Scott McCloud showed it to me in no uncertain terms in his brilliant trilogy of books about comics.

Comics also taught me simple truths about morality and fairness, and about the forces at work trying either to uphold or compromise these values. I was fascinated by the commitment to truth and justice of teams like The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and the dynamic duo of Batman and Robin, but also by the bizarre antics of The Frightful Four, the Norse god Loki, and, of course, the Clown Prince of Crime himself—characters who were equally committed to causing mayhem. Perhaps most interesting for me, though, were the characters whose motivations were not always clear—ones whose actions could appear noble or nefarious or both. I can remember developing an early fascination with these kinds of characters, even though they were sometimes at the margins, like the Foolkiller, Miracleman, and Scourge. Of additional interest to me was when I got to see the world through the eyes of characters that saw it from an entirely different perspective. I remember as particularly impactful the relationship that develops between The Thing and the alien robot Torgo in Fantastic Four #91, when they are forced to participate in a fight to the death on a Prohibition-Era Skrull world where they are being held captive.

Without a doubt, however, I learned my most profound lessons from a strange little series with which I developed an immediate connection—the ten issues that made up the late Steve Gerber’s Omega the Unknown. Nearly a decade and a half before J. K. Rowling got on her train and had an image flash across her mind of a boy who doesn’t know who he is, Gerber gave us James Michael Starling riding with his “parents” down a mountain road in the first issue of the series, one that would lead to their deaths, and to James’ profound discovery that there was so much about himself he didn’t know. Gerber drew a connection between Starling and the titular Omega that taught me everything I needed to know about the deep and abiding connections we have with one another.

Of course, I have read other things since my childhood, but my love of visual narrative developed directly into a broader appreciation of graphical text. It’s no wonder that the fantasy gamebooks of series like Dungeons and Dragons, Boot Hill, and Battle-Tech soon filled my shelves (Trixie and the Bob-Whites eventually had to be boxed), since their visual appeal and participatory nature made them a logical next step in my evolution as a reader. Is it any wonder, then, that my undergraduate studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario consisted almost entirely of English and Mathematics courses, that my M.A. and Ph.D. explored, in large part, the work of Lewis Carroll, and that I developed a lifelong research and writing interest in the history and theory of games in literature and culture? Is it any surprise that I became an educator?

To say that everything I know I learned from comics doesn’t quite go far enough as it turns out. Throughout my career, I have written more than fifty graphic novels and reviewed dozens of others. As a grown up, the kinds of comics and graphic novels I read have changed since my childhood and adolescence, but not my passion for sequential art. Indeed, it’s more important than ever for me to make the form a significant part of my reading life.

After all, everything I know I learned from comics.

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Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children’s author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He has written more than ninety books for young people across a variety of genres, including graphic novels and theme-based classroom books focused on developing the literacy of reluctant readers. He was the series editor of Graphic Poetry, winner of the 2010 Texty Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association and the 2011 Teachers Choice Award from Learning Magazine. Glen received his Ph.D. from the University of Victoria in 1998, focusing on the history and theory of games in literature and culture. Since then, he has taught at a number of secondary and postsecondary institutions including UBC, Appleby College, and most recently, The York School in Toronto. His books have been published by Rubicon, Harcourt, Oxford, Scholastic, and Pearson Canada, and his reviews have appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Beat, and Publishers Weekly.

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  1. Glen,

    As someone who has been teaching in the field of developmental English for about seven years now (both at the secondary and college levels) AND who is working on his dissertation focused on U.S. Lit and Comics, I really hope we have more articles from you! You might be interested in last night’s online discussion featuring JT Waldman, as it raised issues of the pedagogical soundness behind comics as legitimate forms of reading, so you should check out the archived video when you get a chance.

  2. Glen Downey says:

    Thanks Forrest!

    I’ll definitely check out the video! Good luck with the dissertation as well…love to read it when you’re done!


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