The Killer of Reading and the Maker of Readers: Shifting Perspectives on Comics in the Classroom

Sensational Spider-Man #28, cover by Clayton Crain

Sensational Spider-Man #28, cover by Clayton Crain

With the end of summer comes the return of school. While my own high school English experience could best be described as ‘Shakespeare, Miller, and Steinbeck,’ comic books are becoming increasingly popular in the classroom. By turns embraced by readers and condemned by the non-converted, comics are a controversial medium. But how has the perspective on comic books and graphic novels in the classroom has changed over the years? In exploring this question, first I’ll elaborate upon the ideas found in the historical literature. Then I’ll highlight current trends and thinking on the subject, and finally wrap up with a discussion of my own thoughts on comics as a modern medium.

Before starting, however, a note on terminology: I’m going to use ‘comics’ as a catch-all term for comic books and graphic novels. As a long-time, avid comics reader, I find the distinction between the two arbitrary at best and couched in stigma at worst. Furthermore, as Brenner (2011) argues, “all comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels are essentially the same format. The shift between these are not differences in storytelling technique but in length, from (approximately) four panels to 30 pages to anywhere from 100 to 1,000 pages” (p. 257).

William Hogarth: A Rake's Progress, Plate 3: The Tavern Scene

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, Plate 3: The Tavern Scene

When tracing the history of comics, researchers skew towards hyperbole. Brozo, Moorman, and Meyer (2014) claim, “graphic novels as sequential art narratives are as old as ancient cave paintings” (p. 5). Brenner (2011) is less generous, first citing “Egyptian hieroglyphics” (p. 259) as the genesis of comics before settling instead on the publication of William Hogarth’s cartoon, A Rake’s Progress, in the 1730s. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s 1938 Action Comics #1 marked the origin of the superhero comic most recognizable to audiences today (Brenner, 2011).

Comics were incredibly popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Everyone read them. Age, gender, and race were irrelevant (Brenner 2011; Wertham 1954). “In one out of three American homes, comic books [were] virtually the only reading matter” (Wertham, 1954, p. 269). Regardless, they were seen as a symbol of “youth culture” (Connors, 2010) and therefore a potential challenge for educators. According to Dias (1946), “the average student…[was] being molded in many ways by three potent influences: the movies, the radio, and the comic book” (p. 142).

First U.K. printing.

First U.K. printing.

Not unlike the discourse surrounding video games and gaming today, academics and professionals alike sought to blame all of society’s ills on comics—particularly, crime comics. In his scathing critique of the comic book medium and industry, Seduction of the Innocent, psychiatrist Frederick Wertham (1954) identified the “ingredients” of comics as the following: “violence; sadism and cruelty; the superman philosophy” (p. 15). He demanded accountability on the part of the publishers, whom he claimed were “retooling for illiteracy [emphasis in original]” (p. 121). Inherent in any discussion of comics is the notion of whether they have any literary merit. Per Wertham, comics were “not poetic, not literary, [had] no relationship to any art, [and had] as little to do with the American people as alcohol, heroin or marihuana, although many people [took] them, too” (p. 232).

Wertham went one step further when he stated that not only did comic books “kill dreams” (p. 269), but also they actively promoted illiteracy by interfering with “reading readiness” (p. 126). “Reading troubles in children [were] on the increase. An important part of this increase [was] the comic book. A very large proportion of children who [could not] read well,” Wertham argued, “habitually read comic books. They [were] not really readers…. They [were] bookworms without books” (p. 122).

Perhaps what is most frustrating about Wertham’s stance was that he acknowledged that comics appealed to students but refused to accept that reading comics was actually reading. While some of his contemporaries had a more enlightened view towards the medium (Connors, 2010; Wertham, 1954), the attitude that comics were not real literature was prevalent. Dias (1946) would have conversations with students about comics to determine what literary genre they might prefer instead, thereby using the medium “as a stepping stone to a lasting interest in good literature” (p. 142). Meanwhile, experts in the comic book industry “found that comic books teach literacy” (Wertham, 1954, p. 262). One even suggested, “History is often a dull subject…Through comics it could be made a fascinating study” (p. 226).

The Comics Code seal.

The Comics Code seal.

Cooler heads did not prevail. Wertham’s fearmongering swayed public opinion to the point that the comic book industry was forced to create the Comics Code Authority, a method of internal regulation similar to the film industry’s Hays Code, “intended to ensure appropriate content for young readers” (Brenner, 2011, p. 259). The industry effectively neutered, comics fell under the purview of children—a stigma, some argue, that modern detractors of the medium believe still today (Brenner, 2011; Connors, 2010).

The Comics Code became increasingly irrelevant over the decades, though it was not abandoned entirely until 2011 (Brenner, 2011). Nonetheless, for the past thirty years, comics “have been primarily aimed at adult readers, not children or teens” (p. 262). In 1986, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns “dismantled the expectations of the superhero genre and pushed the format into psychologically and literarily complex territory” (p. 260). That same year also saw the publication of Art Spielgeman’s Maus I, followed shortly after by Maus II; “[t]his account of the Holocaust, with Jews portrayed as mice and Nazis as cats, was based on the experiences of Spiegelman’s own parents” (Schwarz, 2010).

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus by Art Spiegelman

According to Botzakis (2010), “The watershed moment for graphic novels in the US occurred in 1992 when Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award. For years afterward, people who read [comics] pointed to the potential for the medium to produce affecting, meaningful, and complex works of art.” In spite of this acclaim, “it would take more than a decade for comics to gain the widespread acceptance in the literary world that would bring them to be reviewed and acclaimed in literary bastions like The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and Time Magazine” (Brenner, 2011).

Educators were likewise reluctant to embrace the medium. Comics “did not gain much traction…in schools until the last decade” (Botzakis, 2010). Once they had, however, one gets the sense from the literature that their use is more accepted in theory than in practice (Botzakis, 2010; Brenner, 2011; Connors, 2010; Schwarz, 2010). Although “professional journals… routinely feature articles that extol their virtue as a pedagogical tool” (Connors, 2010), and there exist entire books on how to use comics across the curriculum (Brozo et al., 2014), comics must always be justified as a worthwhile resource. Botzakis (2010) claims comics have a status as “second-class texts.” I am inclined to agree.

Take, for example, the opening line of Schwarz’s (2010) article: “Graphic novels, the new and longer comic books that transcend predictable superheroes and cute Disney characters, are part of the general buzz about new media and multiple literacies in school.” The article is ostensibly about celebrating comics as a tool to promote multiple literacies, and yet it starts first by artificially distancing graphic novels from comic books, and then by dismissing superheroes—“still a dominant form” (Brenner, 2011, p. 264) in comics.

The Dark Knight Returns #1, cover by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

The Dark Knight Returns #1, cover by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

This distancing is all the more absurd when considering that most modern comic books are written for trade. Trade paperbacks collect several comic books—typically around six although sometimes more—and often tell a single story told over several parts. Trades are “included in the graphic novel category” (Botzakis, 2010). Furthermore, the idea that stories featuring superheroes cannot be literary flies in the face of every critic who praised the aforementioned Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns—both titles, coincidentally, are comic books that were collected in trade.

As far as educators are concerned, the literary merit of comics is secondary to its other uses in the classroom. Rather than being considered as literature, comics are tools designed to “scaffold students for whom reading and writing are difficult” and “motivate ‘reluctant’ readers” (Connors, 2010). In other words, comics are seen as “a less complex, less sophisticated form of reading material best used with weaker readers or struggling students” (Connors, 2010). Schwarz (2010), meanwhile, proposes comics are a “a natural choice for bringing ongoing social problems into question.”

Saga #1, cover by Fiona Staples

Saga #1, cover by Fiona Staples

Although the literary sphere has accepted comics, “[weakening] the impression that reading comics is not ‘real’ reading, and [lending] the format a respectability it could never previously claim” (Brenner, 2011, p. 264), many educators are not convinced. Comics, in the educator’s view, might “delay readers in seeking out quality literature and lead them away from inspiring or educational tales” (Brenner, 2011, p. 256). Again, the assumption is that comics themselves are not quality literature, inspiring, or educational.

Ultimately, I found this surprising. To return to my initial question, the perspective on comics in the classroom has not changed over the years. Although those academics in favour of using comics as a pedagogical tool are now the majority rather than a vocal minority, the idea that comics are a means to teach literacy rather than an end remains pervasive. The debate is not substantially different than the one educators were having in the 1940s and 1950s. Popular opinion has shifted somewhat, of course, but the end result is the same: comics are not “‘real’ reading” (Brenner, 2011, p. 258).

This spoke to my own experience as a student. I was never assigned a comic to read until my first year of university, and while I read, at minimum, one comic per English course thereafter, it was always understood it was because they were speculative fiction courses with no prerequisites. It is, in a way, a backhanded compliment. Comics merit a place in the classroom but not necessarily because they are worthy of study.

You thought I was joking.

You thought I was joking.

Be that as it may, comics and comic book properties have experienced a resurgence in popularity over the past decade. No longer the secret shame of the socially awkward, superheroes and their colourful cast of rogues, friends, and lovers permeate popular culture (Brenner, 2011). Spider-Man’s webbed mask peers out at buyers on merchandise ranging from candy and toys to lamps and car seat covers. Even lesser known characters are receiving boosts in notoriety after a successful summer at the Cineplex; one need look no further than 2014’s smash hit, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, with its gun-toting racoon and talking tree.

In many ways, comics have come full circle in the public consciousness. Though modern sales rarely reach the heights of decades past, comics are accessible in a way they have not been since before the rise of the Direct Market in the 1980s (Brenner, 2011). Armed with a smartphone and an Internet connection, one can have thousands of comics at one’s fingertips—and for a reasonable price. Comic book characters are on our televisions, our computers, our movie screens, our game consoles, and our phones: the obvious, such as DC and Marvel’s pantheon of superheroes, but also properties like The Walking Dead and I, Zombie.

Archie #1, cover by Fiona Staples

Archie #1, cover by Fiona Staples

Unlike previous waves of popularity, comics are now increasingly celebrated for their literary merit (Brenner, 2011). While not every monthly comic book title is on par with Moore’s medium defining, Watchmen—the vast majority of them are not—comics are nevertheless becoming more sophisticated in both content and execution. They tackle complex themes and experiment with form. Even perennial grocery stand favourite, Archie, has made headlines for its bold, creative output in recent years (Ching, 2015).

Consider this quote: “[Comics] continue to be sold, shipped abroad, traded secondhand, borrowed and studied, as long as they hold together. Old comic books never die; they just trade away” (Wertham, 1954, p. 256). Wertham meant it as a critique, but is there not something powerful in a medium that connects so strongly with its readers? Brenner (2011) argues, “there is no sign of readers’ fondness for the format slowing down” (p. 265). Although the literature disagrees on whether this is a cause for concern, one thing is certainly true: comics connect.

References:

Botzakis, S. (2010). A book by another name? Graphic novels in education. The ALAN Review 37(3). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v37n3/botzakis.html

Brenner, R. (2011). Comics and graphic novels. In S.A. Wolf (Ed.), Handbook of research on children’s and young adult literature (256-267). New York: Routledge.

Brozo, W. G., Moorman, G. B., & Meyer, C. K. (2014). Wham!: Teaching with graphic novels across the curriculum.

Connors, S.P. (2010). The best of both worlds: rethinking the literary merit of graphic novels. The ALAN Review. 37(3). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v37n3/connors.html

Ching, A. (2015, January 7). Mark Waid gives “Archie” a “blank slate start” with new series. Retrieved from http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=58276

Dias, E. J. (1946). Comic books – A challenge to the English teacher. English Journal, 35(3), 142-145.

Schwarz, G. (2010). Graphic novels, new literacies, and good old social justice. The ALAN Review 37(3). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v37n3/schwarz.html

Wertham, F. (1953). Seduction of the Innocent. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, Ltd.

About Sarah

Sarah is a 26-year-old media geek currently based in Eastern Canada. A lifelong fan of superheroes thanks to various cartoon incarnations of Spider-Man (not to mention the DCAU), she's been a voracious reader of comics for over ten years.
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