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The Value of Comic Books in Teaching Literacy and Art Appreciation

I grew up loving comic books.  I always thought they were great storytelling vehicles, and they held out great possibility as a future form of great literature.  They were engaging and easy to read.  Although reading assignments in school were often a bore, comic books were always fascinating.  All that action and adventure and muscles and costumes! Plus great sound effects and wicked wit from the most bizarre villains!

Comics introduced me to the world of art in a way that was understandable and exciting.  How often have you walked into an art museum, only to wonder, “what am I looking at“? Art can often be hard to understand, or require some familiarity with the history of art in order to place any particular work of art in its proper context.  To appreciate fine art, you have to be aware of other artists, and times in which they lived, and perhaps something about the life of the artist, in order to really appreciate a museum visit.  Not so with comic books! With comics, you either get it, or you don’t have time for it.  The stories are gutsy and visceral, so it’s easy to jump right in and start appreciating the entire comic work.

When I was a kid, there was “Classic Comics”, which translated great novels into easy-to-read comic books.  Sure, the language was simplified, and the plotlines were abbreviated, but for a twelve-year-old kid, they opened up a new world of literature.  Not just the world of comic book literature, but the world of the great books from which those Classics Comics sprang. I learned about books that I’d later read (or never read) through those Classic Comics. They were an entrée into the world of literature.

Comics made it obvious to me that there was a link between the words and the pictures, and that each relied on the other.  In fact, the word balloons helped explain what was going on in the drawings, and the drawings illustrated the meaning of the words.  For a young reader, back and forth, a sort of visual “call and response” made learning vocabulary so much fun.  When a villain is spewing out a very literate insult, you (as a young kid) are motivated to figure out what he’s actually saying.  The picture serves as a motivator for the reader to pursue reading the contents of the word balloons.  Reading word balloons leads nicely into reading more complicated text, such as the newspaper or novels.

What about sacred or religious literature?  The Bible, and other sacred literary works, seem to be set apart; that they are too special to be given the comic book treatment, lest they lose some of their “holiness”. The Bible has so many vivid and graphic descriptions, and so much quotable text, that it would be an awesome challenge for a comic book artist to translate. But it’s a worthy goal which to aspire. I myself have written a superhero comic book translation of the Jewish prayer book, and there are some very interesting and challenging philosophical issues that cropped up. One of the more frequent issues that popped up was the observation that when you rewrite the holy language in the Bible to wisecracking comic book style of language, you actually end of tone of the Bible, and that has philosophical implications.  A change in the tone of voice can signal a change in the Relationship between, in this case, Man and God. But this relationship gets changed only because my decision to adopt a comic book style in presenting the prayers. So working with comic book translations or interpretations can be risky, because you run the risk doing something very offensive. That’s why it’s always a good idea to work with an authority on your subject whose opinion and expertise you respect.

Those who worry that comics are a weak substitute for a page of text are correct.  Authors of the written word have done amazing things with language, and taken readers places that artists can only dream of.  But if the reader doesn’t want to read a page of text, then you’ve got a problem. Illustrations are naturally easier to understand than written language, which is really a form of code. You have to know how to decipher a language in order to understand it. Not so illustrations. Or at least the forms.

Literacy requires knowledge and familiarity. To be “literate”, you must know how to read text.  To be literate in comics, you must be familiar with comics and also know how to read them (that is, how to read both the words AND the pictures, and how they work together)  Art (without text) requires another type of literacy in order to understand it, a literacy with pictures and symbols.  Can sacred literature be transformed into a comic book or graphic novel, and still retain its sacred qualities? Can a comic book version of Shakespeare also be great? Yes, and it depends on the talent and skill of the artist.  If the artist or writer did a good job making a text to comic book translation, or vice versa, if its any good, you’ll feel it in your heart it won’t be the same as the original, it will be a translation. But how good is the translation?  How good is the comic book version?  It depends on who is doing the writing, and who is doing the drawing.


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