The trend of turning comic book stories into blockbuster movies shows no sign of abating, yet the comic itself is still often over-looked, or rather looked down upon, as inferior to ‘proper novels’. But can comics actually play an important role in the development of prose literacy for young readers?
The UK government commissioned, School Library Association publication, Boys into Books, included a number of comics and graphic novels in the list of suggested reading for 5 to 11-year-olds, while a Canadian Council on Learning report found that: “Boys who read comic books regularly also tend to read more text-based material and report higher levels of overall reading enjoyment, compared to boys who do not read comic books. In fact, some evidence supports the idea that comic books provide a “gateway” to other literary genres.” (1)
Many well-known authors cite comics as an important early influence, including Desperate Dan fan, Michael Morpurgo, who read the Classics Illustrated comic series as a youngster rather than the books themselves. Philip Pullman, continues to champion the medium, contributing The Adventures of John Blake strip for David Fickling Comics. “The comics' form,” he believes, “has all the vivid immediacy of the cinema, and all the private advantages of the book.”
In the hands of skilled practitioner like Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, even the traditional four panel comic strip in a daily newspaper can be a fine, multi-layered piece of storytelling. A prime example of show-don’t-tell, and making frequent use of the cliff-hanger device, a well-written comic can provide a lesson in pacing and the effective use of dialogue. As with film, where every second of screen time costs money, each frame in a comic must be drawn and therefore earn its place on the page.
The popular myth that comics are only useful for immature readers is clearly ridiculous when you consider that to fully engage with a story told in strip form, the reader is required to not only read the words, but also the visual language of the pictures: the use of colour and lighting to create mood and tension, choice of framing and viewpoint – all sophisticated devices that are both subtle and powerful when skilfully employed.
In its purest form, the comic strip uses no words at all. Shaun Tan’s beautiful graphic novel, Arrival is a fine example of this, as is Calvin and Hobbes (for which there are no superlatives worthy). Bill Watterson is renowned for his exquisitely perceptive, warm and witty dialogue, but is possibly at his jaw-dropping best when there are few or no words at all.
|Calvin and Hobbes, copyright Bill Watterson|
Recognition of the value of comics is gradually increasing. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan won the Guardian First Book Award, and Art Spiegelman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Maus. Graphic novel versions of many literary classics are now available, as well as popular series such as Artemis Fowl and Alex Ryder, and it was recently announced that David Fickling Comics will be reborn in 2012, as The Phoenix.
The statistics say that comics can provide a path into ‘reading’ – which is brilliant. But I’d like to suggest two things. Firstly, that reading comics is reading; and secondly, that this path allows traffic to flow both ways, and we may find much to inform and entertain us on the comic book shelves.
15 DAYS WITHOUT A HEAD by Dave Cousins, will be published by Oxford University Press, in January 2012.
(1) source: J. Ujiie & S. Krashen, "Comic book reading, reading enjoyment and pleasure among middle class and chapter 1 middle school students", Reading Improvements, no. 33 (1996), pp.51–54.