Comics can be thought-provoking, boundary-breaking, emotionally complex, and all the things that books without pictures can be. Any kid who's ever devoured a title such as Anya's Ghost, Invisible Emmie or A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel can already tell you this. Some parents, though, could use more convincing. There's still an idea that comics aren't "real" literature, or that they're simply a gateway to help reluctant readers transition from picture books to chapter books. But they can be so much more. Here's why all children should explore the vast comics universe if they haven't already.
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There's Something for Everyone
Comics aren't just about superheroes. You can find fantastic children's and young adult graphic novels in a multitude of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, classics and romance. There has also been a recent explosion of nonfiction graphic novels - kids can read about everything from quantum theory to the history of queer thought and LGBTQ+ action to the insights of Nietzsche.
Pairing Visual and Verbal Storylines May Boost Kids' Memories
We're visual beings - more than 50 per cent of the cerebral cortex is devoted to processing visual information - so telling stories with images can help kids retain information. One study found that students who read seven comic book pages explaining the rudiments of sleep showed stronger memory of the material than those who read the same material in a text-only format.
The Relationship Between the Words and the Pictures Is Beautifully Complex
Gene Luen Yang, whose 2008 book American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, talked about the evolution of comic books in a Big Think video. In the early days of comics, he explained, the format was rather simplistic - the pictures mainly just presented what the words were already conveying. "So you would have a caption that says, 'Superman punches Lex Luthor.' And then in the picture, it would just show you Superman punching Lex Luthor," he said.
Now, the relationship between the words and the pictures is an art in itself. Perhaps in one passage, the text will convey the most important message, and then in the next passage, the illustrations will take over. Or maybe the words and the pictures will contradict each other, and you, the reader, must decide which one is true. Gutters, the spaces that separate the panels, can be used to make readers pause and contemplate what they have just read. It's all a careful and fascinating dance, and it's worth analysing.
Comics Have Messages About Diversity
While parents and teachers usually don't have a problem with literary jewels such as Maus, Fun Home and American Born Chinese, Jabari Sellars of the Harvard Graduate School of Education wants kids to study good ol' superheroes, too. He believes they have a lot to teach us about being the "other".
On the Harvard site Useable Knowledge, he wrote about the classroom unit he developed using Chris Claremont's X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills; Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men; and Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men. At the beginning of the lesson, he asks his students: What is a mutant and who in our society would be considered a mutant? Then he helps them make these surprising connections:
... students begin to see how X-Men is an allegory for the experiences of marginalized people - non-white, non-male, non-Christian, non-heteronormative - in an oppressive society. Digging into the characters and plots of their X-Men comics, they soon find contemporary and historic parallels.
They find the sociopolitical ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X in the characters Charles Xavier and Magneto. They recognise the connection between stop-and-frisk policies and the "anti-mutant" initiatives in the comics. They come to see that there is nothing coincidental about the irascible Quicksilver having a mercurial temper, or the naïve hero Cyclops having trouble seeing the depths of a given situation.
As an industry, comics are one place where diversity seems to be thriving - Comics Beat just published a list of the Top 20 Graphic Novels of 2017, and 17 of them included women, Asian or African American members on the creative teams.
Storytelling Is Changing
Storytelling is defying genres. Today's kids should be able to think in 80,000-word books and in 80-character tweets. And they should take in all sorts of narratives, told in a variety of ways. The best stories for your kids are simply the ones they are captivated by.