Friday, 12 August 2011

The art of storytelling

Edge author, Dave Cousins asks: Can comics and graphic novels provide a gateway into reading?

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. 


  1. I totally agree, when I think of the books that have influenced me, I tend to forget comics, but as a teenager I was a regular reader of 2000AD (me and my dad both) and I love Calvin and Hobbes to this day (me and my husband both). I read the occasional traditional 'comic' and I'm still quite smug about that fact that I had the issue where Robin died (long gone now though). Maybe that is where I learned some of my craft, after all.

  2. i am so happy that DFC comics are coming back! hooray!

    I loved comic books - loved strip comics which is a dying art ... Peanuts and Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace were more my era (telling!) and I can see their influence in the way I write. Hopefully the DFC will encourage more of this type of comicking in a world where graphic novels seem to dominate and take the form to older audiences.

  3. I taught children with Special Needs for 30 years and was always happy if kids were reading comics because it meant that they were developing their reading skills. Although I was a good reader from childhood, I always enjoyed comics as well. My favourite was Superman and since you asked, the Super Power I have always wanted is X-Ray vision!

  4. X-Ray vision! Dare I ask why, MIriam? I think I'd like the power of flight, so long as it didn't use up too much energy ie. more floating than swimming!

    Yes, it's great that DFC is coming back, let's hope it spearheads a UK comic revival.

    B, I often read a bit of Calvin and Hobbes for inspiration – it's got everything – and it still makes me laugh out loud.

  5. I'm a big advocate for comics - my daughters love them (even if my wife doesn't!) The relaunch of the Dandy has been a good thing, even for all its celeb-obsessed zaniness. I'm interested in where the Phoenix goes - I frequently feel guilty that I didn't give the DFC the support it needed at the time...

  6. I am a huge fan of comics and graphic novels. I don't know manga so well, but for that I have friends to guide and advise me. I grew up reading my brother's Commando comics and when we moved to the UK and I discovered Forbidden Planet, a whole new world opened up to me.

    I love going into Gosh! Comics or Orbital or Forbidden Planet and seeing this "coming of age" ritual where the dad goes in with his son and chats to him about the virtues of the X Men over Justice League.

    The mythologies the creators create are so rich and so vibrant, that it really can only create intelligent forward thinking young adults.

    There may be hope for us yet.

  7. Thanks for all the comments folks, it's reassuring to hear so many words in support of comics. I'm now off to read some 1980s Roy of the Rovers with my lad …

  8. I missed out on comics as I was growing up - all except for a brief few months of Bunty. But when I was older I remember my younger brothers were heavily into comics rather than books, and thirty years later they're still both readers of comics and books too.