By Dr. Brad Hawley (Oxford College, Emory)
Why do I talk about comics so much? First, I love comics and want to spread the word. Second, I edit and write comic book reviews here at the Fantasy Literature Review Site, so they are always on my mind as a writing project. Third, I am an English Professor who teaches comic books in all courses, from Freshman Writing to Crime Fiction, so I am always studying them for class and talking about them with students. Finally, I visit local schools and libraries to educate students, parents, teachers, and librarians about the importance of comics, so I am always promoting them for educational reasons.
Why do I believe comics are so important for young readers? Many people give a fairly weak defense of comics for kids, a defense that goes something like this: “Some kids really don’t like to read, and perhaps we can get them to read comics so that they don’t give up reading altogether.” As you can see, the assumption is that comics are, at best, a stepping-stone to “good” reading and possibly the least desirable material for a child to read. While I do believe that this implication is true — Comics will often appeal to students who are not interested in chapter books that are prose only — this is not the only compelling reason to encourage kids to read them. Comics are not merely a stepping-stone to prose-only novels and non-fiction; rather, they offer something very different from an educational standpoint (I certainly don’t need to make a defense for their entertainment value!).
What do they offer educationally? They teach visual literacy. As a society — as reflected in the emphasis given prose-only works by teachers, parents, and librarians — we define literacy as linguistic literacy only. Most people don’t even realize that when they use the word literacy, they are referring only to a narrow definition that completely excludes visual literacy, which is just as important as linguistic literacy. Think of how vital it is to be able to interpret the subtlety of body language and the nuances of facial expressions. Prose-only literature gives us the language, teaches children the language, with which to describe body language and facial expressions, but it does not teach students to interpret it for themselves. Only actual images can offer students the opportunity to use words to interpret what they see, and comic books allow students a chance to examine closely these visual cues of everyday communication.
In mentioning body language and facial expressions, I’m touching on only a very small portion of our visual world that needs interpreting. Consider clothing, architecture, signs, landscape, and other visual aspects of varying environments that human beings inhabit. Prose-only books tell students how to think about these visual aspects of the world by giving them words, but they do not offer the students the chance to use words themselves in interpreting the visual world. Comics offer that opportunity.
In college I teach comics in my Freshman Writing courses because my job is to teach students critical reading and writing, the skills they’ll need for any discipline they eventually choose. Most English professors, since they usually study prose-only works as I did up until almost ten years after finishing my Ph.D., think of critical reading as the critical reading of words. And while all disciplines require that students have the ability to analyze written texts — at the very least when they read scholarship in their field — many disciplines require the ability to interpret and write about the visual world: Science students need to be able to write about the visual world around them or about experiments in a controlled laboratory environment. Either way, nature and lab experiments do not offer words to interpret. They offer visual elements (and often smell and touch and sound and even taste, in some cases!). And going into the field of psychology will require a student to interpret body language and facial expressions on a regular basis, as will those who go into any field that requires human interaction: A good businessman better be able to “read” people. Architects and interior designers and city planners all need the ability to understand space and how we move through it, how man-made and man-shaped environments define us and communicate meaning. These are only a few of the fields that require visual literacy.
I propose that if students were to be taught either prose-only novels OR comic books, they should be taught comic books, because comic books teach visual AND linguistic literacy while prose-only novels teach only linguistic literacy. If anything, prose-only works are lesser than comic books. The only problem with comics is that they were censored and not allowed to advance much as a field of art for adults until about thirty years ago (with some very important exceptions I don’t have time to discuss now). However, there have been produced in those past thirty years more sophisticated comic books than any one person can read in a lifetime. That, as an entire art form, “comics are for kids” is — as most educated people now know — a ridiculous assumption. In fact, it’s harder to find good comics for kids than for adults! However, I’ve found plenty just in the past few years — for example, if your child has never read Jeff Smith’s Bone, I consider it the equivalent of never having heard of Shakespeare. Bone is a masterpiece of literature that should be in every single home.
Do I believe we should read comics instead of prose-only novels? Absolutely not. I still read and teach mainly prose-only novels. Jane Austen is my favorite author (followed by Haruki Murakami and Somerset Maugham). My passion for novels runs deep: I didn’t even read comics until I was almost 40 years old. Before that, I thought they were fairly silly and a waste of time and money. Obviously, I’ve radically revised my opinion and have embarked on what could be fairly described as an educational crusade. I feel students are not truly educated until they learn how to read the linguistic and visual elements of a sophisticated comic book — and there are plenty of sophisticated superhero comics, by the way.
On a final note, I don’t like the argument I often hear when people try to defend comics in a backhand way: “I finally found Maus and Persepolis and realized that there are some good comics; not all comics, thank goodness, are superhero comics.” These people usually call what they consider good comics “graphic novels” and bad comics “comics.” There are incredibly sophisticated superhero comics, particularly in the wake of Watchmen, but there were plenty before Watchmen, too. And the term comics best serves to describe monthly publications, while the term graphic novels best describes works that were conceived as stories with a clear beginning and end and with thematic unity, whether they were published all at once as a single book or published first as monthlies and then published as a book, like Daytripper and Watchmen (much like a serially produced novel by Charles Dickens).
Comic books, as I hope I’ve made clear, are incredibly important for all those who claim to be educators and to be educated. I feel comfortable making such a claim since I am talking about myself: I failed to understand the importance of comics for my entire life as an official student and for over half my two decades of teaching college English. My criticisms are ones I base on my own failures, and my urgency of tone comes from a desire to reach out in a way I wish somebody had reached out to me years ago. What would you do if you met somebody who had never watched a movie or read a novel? That’s how I feel about people who have never read a comic book, an narrative art form as unique as movies and novels. If even one person decides to start reading comics because of this Manifesto, I consider my writing it worth the effort. Thanks for reading.
You can see more of Dr. Hawley's ruminations on comics and his graphic novel reviews at his page on FantasyLiterature.com!