Why I Believe in Comics

On NPR, there is a program called This I Believe… where respondents briefly explain their particular belief about a certain topic in around 500 or so words. Some individuals focus on their belief in the transformative power of education.  Others discuss their beliefs in the influence individuals had in their lives, and how they in turn have paid it forward.  I’m going to take a brief opportunity to do something of the same sort in this article—even if I am over that word count.  I’d like to think of it as why I believe in comics.

As a college freshman—many years ago—I recall one of my professors telling me in my Intro to Literature course that what truly set apart literature apart from the other courses of study, such as biology and mathematics, was it made available insights into the human experience from the present day to thousands of years ago from the perspective of those people.  From these reading experiences, we were able to explore many of the different ways writers have tried to put down in words what it means and what it can mean to be human.  While others may take umbrage with this assessment of the function of literature or point out other fields that also afford this sort of study, there was something in the mixture of this description and his sincere enthusiasm that resonated with me.  Of course, I never made any sort of connection from my comic books and graphic novels to the novels, essays, short stories, and poems that I studied until a few years later as a graduate student.

It was on a whim that I decided to include a graphic novel in one of the first developmental English classes I taught soon after getting my master’s degree.  I think the only thing that convinced me to add the book to the reading selection was the romantic belief that I might use it as a “gateway drug” for real novels and thereby develop an ability to read with students who were typically predisposed to dislike reading.  While I won’t say every student was turned on to comics, I was overwhelmed with the positive responses—as were my colleagues.   I had students devouring their books in one sitting and then emailing me in shock that they’d read their first book for school in years and wanted to know what to read next.  Others couldn’t wait to discuss the very non-cartoonish nature of the book (Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad).  I even had one student who was so incensed at the rape scene in this comic—which I thought was done as tastefully as one might portray a scene of this nature—and then exclaimed her surprise over having actually responded to a novel.  It seems most reading experiences left her bored and disinterested.  While I’m not sure I agree with her outrage, I encouraged students to explore their reactions to their reading experience—positive or negative.  My end-of-semester evaluations had at least one common remark from the vast majority of my students that semester: They were going to read more comics.  I found a genre of books that excited nonreaders to do something they initially swore off.  How was this possible?

In the few years since that point time, I was afforded the opportunity to continue incorporating comics and graphic novels into the college and high school classes I taught.  With little exception, these books proved to be the highlight for many of my students.  Again, many nonreaders who promised me they would never read a book in my class often found themselves finished with their work well in advance, and far from dreading a class discussion or activity focused on their graphic novel.  Even now I have many friends and colleagues who tell me that it was comics that turned them on to reading.  What I have come to discover is the transformative power of the comic book to remove the stigma of reading that many of these struggling, often disinterested and even more discouraged readers held when they saw a book.  Students—young and old—are able to say that there were books they enjoyed and would even consider reading again… as long as it was okay to consider a comic a real book.  And I believe this transformative power has a great deal to do with the accessibility of comic books.

Looking deeper at the issue of access, if one approaches a Mark Twain novel or a Shakespearian play with a limited vocabulary, comprehending the plotline will be a significant struggle for that reader let alone attempting to appreciate the subtle nuances of these works.   Additionally, those readers who struggle with building “mental models” to better visualize what they’re reading may have a even greater levels of difficulty appreciating the vast epic crafted by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings series.  Yet, much of these barriers are removed when these same readers pick up a graphic novel.  Worlds and the actions taking place in them unfold before their eyes.  The difficulty of saliency determination is significantly mitigated through the careful word choice of the writer while the artist helps bridge the gap between comprehension and text thereby providing a means for readers to delve into greater level of critical thinking.

I believe in the desire of other teachers to find new and exciting ways to help bridge the gap between their students and the ability to read well and think critically about what they’ve uncovered between the covers of a book.  I also believe there is a place for comics to coexist alongside traditional, language-dominant literature without worry or concern of one replacing the other; either in a watering down process through accepting a somehow lesser form of literature or in an exclusive, gate-keeping approach of what is and is not allowed to be considered true literature.  I’ve been fortunate to see the power comics have in a classroom to get students reading outside of the four walls in which I teach day in and out, and this truly excites me about the possibilities of where literature can and is going today.

Now, what do you believe?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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2 Comments

  1. Miguel Rosa says:

    I certainly owe my love for literature to discovering comics at the age of 9. Throughout my life, comics have directed me to great books. I’ve always loved series like Doom Patrol and Promethea that established a dialogue with the rest of literature and the arts and introduced me to greater worlds than boring Krypton.

  2. Thanks Miguel!

    I, too, found a real love of reading through spending hours reading comics as a kid–typically Marvel in my house with only a smattering of DC. I didn’t really discover “literary” comics until I got back into collecting a number of years ago. A few people recommended some non-mainstream titles–not for collecting but reading–and I was hooked. Now, I find I can gain as much enjoyment from reading something like Craig Thompson’s “Habibi” as I will from more traditional forms of literature. It’s really an exciting time in the field for readers of all backgrounds and abilities!

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