The call of the comic book

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS MONTHLY -

SHOULD chil­dren read comics? This is an old ques­tion, but one that is worth be­ing raised again as evinced by a re­cent, badly-re­searched lo­cal tele­vi­sion news re­port, which showed there are many mis­con­cep­tions about the sub­ject.

I am per­son­ally all for chil­dren read­ing comics, never mind whether or not the ac­tiv­ity yields any ed­u­ca­tional ben­e­fits. I think chil­dren (and ev­ery­one else) should read for fun. That’s al­ways my chief aim when wav­ing a book un­der some­one’s nose. You like it, you read it. If you get any­thing ex­tra out of it, great, but the main thing is that you en­joy yourself.

Now, let’s start by clear­ing up some things. I know there are those who make the distinc­tion be­tween comics and graphic nov­els. I know there are some par­ents who have de­cided that graphic nov­els are ac­cept­able read­ing ma­te­rial, but comics aren’t.

Ac­tu­ally, there is no dif­fer­ence be­tween the two. Comics are ba­si­cally sto­ries that are told through a se­quence of (usu­ally) drawn pic­tures, with ac­com­pa­ny­ing text (al­though there are also text­less comics). Some comics are hu­mor­ous, and many of us prob­a­bly iden­tify most read­ily with the comic strips found in news­pa­pers. How­ever, there are also fea­ture ac­tion/ ad­ven­ture comic strips. Re­mem­ber Brenda Starr and Mod­esty Blaise, Spi­der-Man and the Phan­tom? In fact, comics cover all gen­res.

What about graphic nov­els? Well, these are sim­ply comics in book-form. The term first came about in the 1960s, but only be­came widely used in the late 1980s fol­low­ing the suc­cess of works like Art Spiegel­man’s Maus.

Al­though the term graphic novel of­ten refers to a stand-alone, novel-length story in se­quen­tial art form, it is also used for an­tholo­gies of comic work and even non-fic­tion comics pre­sented in this man­ner.

Su­per­heroes are of­ten what the pub­lic think of in re­la­tion to comics, but, as men­tioned be­fore, this form of story-telling in­cludes all kinds of styles and con­tent. My fa­ther used to buy me Tales From The Crypt comic pe­ri­od­i­cals. These were creepy and gory, the graph­ics adding spook-value to the sto­ries of zom­bies, vam­pires and other su­per­nat­u­ral crea­tures.

My graphic novel collection (I don’t own pe­ri­od­i­cals) al­most di­rectly re­flects my catholic read­ing tastes. Most gen­res cov­ered by the text-only books on my shelves are what you can find in the graphic novel sec­tion of my li­brary: Ro­mance, fan­tasy, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, crime, hor­ror, bi­og­ra­phy. I do not like su­per­heroes, no mat­ter how they’re pre­sented. How­ever, many kids love them and might be en­cour­aged to read books that fea­ture their favourite mus­cle-bound saviour of the world.

Ed­u­ca­tion min­istries around the world (Malaysia in­cluded) have ac­knowl­edged the ben­e­fits of comics in pro­mot­ing lit­er­acy. In 2010, the Malaysian Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry an­nounced that graphic nov­els were to be part of the lit­er­a­ture com­po­nent for lower sec­ondary stu­dents. I be­lieve, how­ever, the ti­tles com­prised clas­sic like Black Beauty and Jour­ney To The Cen­tre Of The Earth (in comic for­mat), not Su­per­man or The Dark Knight Re­turns. I be­lieve there’s still a stigma at­tached to the lat­ter type of comics. You prob­a­bly wouldn’t get The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid used in read­ing pro­grammes ei­ther, but that se­ries is pop­u­lar for the same rea­son why graphic nov­els are said to be pro­mote lit­er­acy. Re­luc­tant read­ers more likely want to read sto­ries they find ac­ces­si­ble and in­ter­est­ing. If a 13-year-old boy were given the choice be­tween Bat­man and Black Beauty, which do you think he’d pick?

Of course, I agree that the read­ing mat­ter has to be age-ap­pro­pri­ate, but hav­ing ruled out sto­ries with sex and ex­ces­sive vi­o­lence, there then needs to be more open­ness about the sorts of comics deemed suit­able for kids. The best ap­proach, I feel, is to pro­vide a wide va­ri­ety of styles and con­tent so the kids can choose based on in­di­vid­ual in­ter­est. Now, why are graphic nov­els a great class­room/lit­er­acy tool? Let’s go back to The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. It’s not a graphic novel, but if you’ve read the book, you might have noted that it con­tains a lot of pic­tures and that the pic­tures are used to break up the text. So, there are no “walls” of words – pages filled with noth­ing but text. These are in­tim­i­dat­ing – they make kids want to slam the book shut and run for the hills.

In a graphic novel, the text is brief and bro­ken up into speech bub­bles and short nar­ra­tive blurbs. These are much more man­age­able to a young reader who will also be able to use the pic­tures to help her de­ci­pher mean­ing and con­text. The whole idea is to en­cour­age a child to read, and stud­ies have shown that comics get the job done more ef­fec­tively than “tra­di­tional” books do. I be­lieve that when a re­luc­tant reader is handed a comic, she im­me­di­ately feels less de­fen­sive, less anx­ious and less in­tim­i­dated. Comics are im­me­di­ately as­so­ci­ated with “fun” and “re­lax­ation”, and this mo­ti­vates the reader to get stuck in im­me­di­ately!

There are other ways graphic nov­els ben­e­fit read­ers, and many are sim­i­lar to the ben­e­fits ob­tained from read­ing text-only books. Comics are by no means friv­o­lous, silly, with a limited vo­cab­u­lary. There are graphic nov­els which are all that and worse, but there are also bad­ly­writ­ten reg­u­lar books. A lit­tle bit of re­search will re­veal that there are a many ex­cel­lent graphic nov­els avail­able. Pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary awards have been cre­ated to hon­our the best of these books, and our own Lat’s Kam­pung Boy has been the re­cip­i­ent of sev­eral of these prizes, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion’s Best Book for Young Adults, Top Ten List 2006, and Book­list’s Top Ten Graphic Nov­els for Youth 2007. For a com­pre­hen­sive guide visit the Young Adult Li­brary Ser­vices As­so­ci­a­tion’s site at ala.org/yalsa/ggnt. Happy Read­ing!

Daphne Lee is a writer, edi­tor, book re­viewer and teacher. She runs a Face­book group called The Places You Will Go for lovers of all kinds of lit­er­a­ture. Write to her at star2@thes­tar.com.my.

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