The call of the comic book
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 email@example.com.