Comics and Literacy:

Still Struggling

I recently encountered some (sadly) all-too-familiar anti-comics sentiment, and alas I think it reflects an attitude in society that has yet to pass away.

When I am engaged to teach students, particularly students trying to learn English or study for exams, my first question is generally “What do you like to read?”. Because, not only in my opinion but that of many others, reading is the key to literacy. You can listen all you want, study grammar until your participle is dangling on the floor, learn all the vocabulary in the world, but no one is truly literate until they can read, think and above all be creative. The traditional approach here is to hand students a stack of nauseatingly predictable texts that have been in use, educationally speaking, since the late Pleistocene: 1984, Of Mice and Men, The Diary of Anne Frank, and so on. What these books share is that they are light-years removed from the interests of or the culture in which modern youth live. It seems a more productive route might be to instead ask the student what they read (if anything) and celebrate it. Yes (and it causes me physical pain to admit this, as a feminist and a Whedon scholar), even Twilight. Any reading is better than no reading.

But, of course, the thing they read must have no pictures. They must face a wall of printed text and absorb it. If there are any pictures accompanying the text, no matter if the text is Hamlet, it’s disqualified for educational purposes in many quarters. This is what happened to me recently, as I was sorely tempted to recommend some more refined comics to a student struggling with English comprehension, but was told that “comics don’t count as books”.

There’s so much in that attitude that makes my blood boil. For one thing, if comics aren’t books, then what are they? They’re pieces of folded paper, bound together at the spine, with words written on them intended to be experienced in a certain order. If that’s not a book, then I don’t understand the definition of the word. Everyone who is educated in comics naturally refers to them as books, because that’s what they are. To some people, “books” seems to mean “printed words… and NOTHING else.” What a sad, small world they seem to inhabit.

And of course, even if they will concede that comics do represent a category of books, they won’t concede that studying them or reading them has a value even approaching the experience of reading a novel or short story. In other words, the implicit argument is that comics are inherently unserious children’s entertainment, and that having any pictures to accompany words is a “cheat”, and somehow takes away from or disregards the words that are, of course, present.

In an attempt to meet this retrograde attitude halfway, I would admit that for some students, particularly those learning English as a second language, it’s probably valuable for them to read printed text, simply because it requires them to conceptualize and cognitively process the information in an abstract way, thus developing new verbal brain power. The pictorial component of comics would, perhaps, in some cases, allow the reader to “get” the story and even the major themes and still have very poor language skills. But for the overwhelming majority of students in the world, comics present more, not fewer, challenges in terms of comprehension and literacy.

Comics, especially the truly great ones, add visual language on top of, rather than instead of, verbal literacy. They require the reader to understand two different languages at once, both of which are working together to create meaning. They are more than prose, not less. Understanding the words are important, to be sure. And in a great comic, they’ll be there, and play the same role as text in any other storytelling format, using allusion, metaphor, turns of phrase and narrative voice that is at least equal to any other kind of literature. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, understanding Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country without having at least some familiarity with Shakespeare and other English literature. Or anyone reading Alan Moore’s From Hell will learn as much about Victorian morality as anything else, simply from Moore’s studied use of language and deep knowledge of history and symbolism. But this all supposes that the reader of comic is looking only at the words, as if the words are the only thing of value, a deep and dangerous educational fallacy. Particularly today, when we all live in a veritable sea of visual texts thanks to advertising and the design of computer interfaces, understanding them is of at least as much importance as understanding when to use an Oxford comma. Somehow “media literacy” has been relegated to the corner of the proverbial room, an indulgence offered only by the most progressive of schools, rather than a fundamental part of modern educational curriculum, as it should be. It’s as if we’re preparing students to function in the year 1965, rather than the year 2015.

All of this is rather like preaching to the choir for most of the people who read articles here on Sequart. I certainly don’t have to re-state the mission of our organization or make a case for the importance of comics as an art form and a medium capable of “high” literature here. But we should never forget that, in far too many places, ignorance of our favourite medium reigns. What will eventually change this, and bring comics into the mainstream of literacy study, including primary and secondary school curricula, is probably time and cultural momentum. Consider how film analysis evolved through the 1960s and 1970s: at first, it was the domain of a small group of committed scholars and industry insiders. The only sort of literature a member of the general public would ever read about film would be a “movie review”. To show them, particularly a narrative film that commits the seemingly unpardonable academic sin of being actually interesting, modern, relevant and entertaining, was considered “cheating”. Film literacy simply wasn’t important, because films were “just entertainment” (as if novels weren’t!). But eventually a critical mass was achieved, and while there’s still some distance left to cover, for the most part film literacy is an accepted part of being a literate person.

In a world where the most-seen media products on Earth are based on comics, and digital distribution is making comics more widely available than ever before, our favourite medium can’t be ignored by mainstream education forever. With the help of organizations like Comics in Education and others, the tide is turning. I just wish it would turn a little bit faster, so I can celebrate my students’ literacy and passions, rather than having to dismiss them.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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