• Longform 

    Multiversity 101: Comic Book Literacy

    By | November 23rd, 2009
    Posted in Longform | % Comments

    In this week’s edition of my industry analyzing column Multiversity 101, I wanted to take a look at two trends in comics: the increasing age of the average reader and the increasing legitimacy of using comic books as a tool to promote literacy and learning in schools. These two subjects, if properly managed by the comic book industry, could lead towards hugely beneficial advances for both the realm of comics and for the world as a whole, yet to date have been mostly ignored by leading companies.

    Over the past few decades the youth audience of comic books that was once so prevalent has slowly but surely evaporated. There are a number of important reasons for this, such as the simple pricing out of this demographic, the shifting perceptions of the medium from a youth standpoint, and the perceived reality of parents that comic books are “junk food for the brain.” As Todd Kent, producer/director of the upcoming documentary Comic Book Literacy, said to me via email, “a major criticism of the comic book community in general is that (it isn’t) very inclusive and there is the fear that the current readership will be the final generation of comic book readers.” Scary but easily supported by the increase age of the average reader and by myself, as I can’t remember the last time I actually saw a child in my local store on a mission to buy comics.

    As Kent said, “the bottom line is that in order to survive, the comic book community needs to replenish its readership.” So how exactly can the comic book publishers make this happen? This dovetails very nicely with another issue the nation as a whole is running into, and that is the decreasing literacy rates amongst our youth. “Ask any professional educator and they will tell you that the hardest part of teaching isn’t in the details of math, science or literature,” Kent says in an email to me, “but in the act of getting their students’ attention in the first place.”

    This is where comic books fit in perfectly. Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information science at Illinois, stated that “there’s also a greater appreciation among both teachers and librarians for what comics and comic books can bring to the classroom.” Regardless of how older youths (meaning high schoolers, mostly) look at comics, amongst the elementary set there is still the modicum of cool imbued on the pages of favorite titles like Batman and X-Men. Getting students to pick up Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn may be difficult, but when they see a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #611 they immediately want to read it (it helps that Skottie Young made a pretty amazing cover for it).

    Once it is in their hands it can do wonders, as an Idaho teacher named Mr. Fowler (his first name is unknown to me) found. “Not only do graphic novels constitute “real reading,” but they promote metacognition; both sides of the brain are utilized when it comes to the graphic novel.” I became aware of Mr. Fowler via a link posted on Facebook, as he is a teacher in a rather poor section of rural Idaho in which literacy rates are especially troubling. Mr. Fowler has found that comics and graphic novels have been especially useful in getting his students to read, yet his funds were cut repeatedly to the point he could not afford new titles to share with his students. Enter a program called DonorsChoose.org, in which Fowler quickly collected the resources necessary to acquire them.

    Another very exciting success story involving the collision of comic books and the classroom has taken place in Dr. Michael Bitz’ program The Comic Book Project. This project was founded in 2001 and at first only existed in New York City, but has quickly been adopted across the nation for its merits in increasing awareness of art, literacy, and community in youths through comic books. This program takes kids and puts them in a program in which they collaborate with other children to create their own comic books, which are then shared with supporting partner Dark Horse Comics.

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    As said in the Robert Browne Foundation’s Occasional Paper series, “engaging children in creating comic books reinforces many of the academic skills that school teachers so desperately struggle to instill. In creating a comic book, children plan the characters; outline a plot; draft a manuscript; consider elements of tone and atmosphere; revise and edit their writing; focus on character and story development; correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation; review peer work; share and discuss story lines; and present and publish finalized works.” This allows students to transcend their “underachieving” ways and meet their benchmark literacy standards using a project that engages students and gets them to do something that they want to be doing in the first place.

    This program has been a huge success and a lot of the thanks can be given to Dark Horse. Dark Horse is the number three publisher in the comic book industry and is helping get comics into the hands of younger audiences via this program. By doing so, they are helping prolong the potential lifespan of the medium so many of us have come to love. Yet, short of the typically dumbed down and often license affiliated titles Marvel and DC produces, there really isn’t a whole lot that they are doing to help develop their audience. In fact, with most Big Two comics being based around convoluted continuity and major events that are exclusionary to new readers, it becomes almost impossible for youths to join on the fun even if they could afford to.

    There are exceptions to these rules. Marvel created the Ultimate line of comics towards the beginning of this decade in an attempt to create a new generation of fans for titles not rife with the same continuity issues. Great idea, but when ultimately applied it appeared to be just more of the same readers picking them up. They also started releasing titles like Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s Runaways which catered more towards a younger audience without insulting their intelligence and started producing them in Manga sized (and vastly more affordable) digest formats.

    Even with these attempts, publishers struggle to get their titles into the hands of children. The reasons why are varied, but the most prominent reason is the limited distribution channels available to them. While available in limited quantities and selection in major bookstores, the only real place to get new titles really is to pick them up at your local comic book store. These are frequently unrepresented in cities and staffed by, frankly put, elitist fans who have limited interest in guiding younger readers to titles that would stimulate their brain and entertain. Perhaps the best avenues for these younger readers are local libraries, yet most of these are even woefully under supplied and mostly based around donations.

    After going on about this for a while, you probably have noted my central thesis. These problems are interwoven, as literacy rates continue to dwindle and the average age of readers continue to increase, and if neither are resolved both the real world and the comic book one are in trouble. However, if we as readers and the big publishers mobilized and developed a plan of attack, resolution could be found. The call to action this week in Multiversity 101 is this: do you have trade paperbacks and graphic novels that you do not read any more? Donate them to your local library. Do you work for a comic book publisher of any size? Look into supporting local school programs and libraries. Are there teachers out there like Mr. Fowler in Idaho who needs our support? Help them — every little donation does a lot of good.

    We are all part of the global comic book community. Without support of programs like The Comic Book Project, teachers like Mr. Fowler, or our local libraries, the world of comics is headed for a disastrous and perhaps final fate while we will continue to see escalating illiteracy numbers. To take a line from Lost, this really is a situation of live together, die alone. I’m going to do my part this Christmas and donate to my local library. What are you going to do?

    //TAGS | Multiversity 101

    David Harper

    David Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).


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