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Maryland's "Comic Book Initiative"—a plan to
introduce comics into schools to involve reluctant readers and thereby
improve their reading skills—presents itself as a bold, experimental
program. Maryland authorities quoted in the Washington Post
last December inaccurately claimed that "nobody" had looked at the value
of comic books as reading material before and "no studies" had
previously tried to measure the possible effects of comic book reading
on student achievement.
Actually, educators have been looking at comic books for a long time.
By the 1940s, teachers in thousands of classrooms were trying to use
comic books as a springboard to book-reading. When “The Journal of
Educational Sociology” devoted an entire issue to "The Comics as an
Educational Medium" 61 years ago, they included a bibliography that
listed dozens of articles about comics that had been published in
education journals. The 1949 textbook Teaching Children to Read
by Adams, Gray and Reese faintly endorsed comic books (those
"archenemies of good literary taste") in ways that would be repeated in
many reading instruction textbooks for years to come.
Adams, Gray and Reese urged teachers to reconcile themselves to the huge
popularity of comic books. They wrote that "The problem of comic books
is not that many children regularly read them; it is that a large and
growing number read them to the exclusion of better types of
recreational reading." They warned teachers that sternly forbidding kids
from bringing comics to school just leads them to hide their comics. (A
1955 textbook would call this "driving comic book reading
The Teaching Children to Read textbook went further to propose
that teachers could use comic books in their classrooms to "aid children
in learning to discriminate among the comics as among other forms of
reading." (Other authors would add, "The better ones, such as True Comics and Classic Comics,
can be safely allowed a place in the classroom library.") Like the
Comic Book Initiative of today, reading instruction textbooks emphasized
that assigning comic books can help "children who need remedial
reading" gain a feeling of success in reading.
Adams, Gray and Reese assured their readers that "the exclusive interest
many children take in comic books is but a passing phase which will
eventually be outgrown." With patience, the comic book reader can move
to a "higher literary level," from "Terry and the Pirates" to Treasure
Island. (Other textbooks added the authors Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne,
H. Rider Haggard, and H.G. Wells as superior alternatives to comic
books.) Many important differences separate then from now. These
include the collapse of the comic book industry in the mid-1950s; the
invention of newer entertainment media; and the acceptance of comics, in
the form of the "graphic novel," as a legitimate medium which readers
do not need to "outgrow." Also, the idea that teachers can help children
see that Classics Illustrated and True Comics outrank
comic books that feature "ridiculous antics" or violate "common-sense"
now seems silly. Today's educators speak less of using kids' addictions
to comic books as a springboard to reading trade books than of using
comic books to entice reluctant readers toward the world of print.
Unlike the old reading instruction textbooks, Maryland defends the use
of comics in classrooms as part of a "war on illiteracy," a "battle"
whose progress ultimately will be measured in reading scores on
standardized tests. This puts a grim spin on the potentially fun and
enriching activity of reading comic books.
The authors of dozens of reading instruction textbooks published since
the 1940s focused cursorily on comic books' words (for example, by
quoting researchers who had analyzed comic book vocabularies for reading
level, grammatical correctness, and prevalence of slang) but barely
acknowledged the "atrocious" pictures. They treated comic book
illustrations more as a dangerous lure than as a creative component of
an evolving art form. These reading specialists defended the privileged
status of unadorned text, and regarded a move from any comic book to any
trade book as a step up. They promoted the value of knowing how to read
on the shaky grounds that novels still offer the best medium for the
recreational consumption of adventure stories. The "Comic Book
Initiative," in an improvement over these older approaches, calls
attention to comics' interplay of words and pictures as an important
strength of this "visual medium."
One theory has it that educators lost interest in comic books after the
mid-1950s because of successful efforts to discredit the medium led by
psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and others. Actually, of the dozen reading
instruction textbooks I have found that referred to Wertham by name or
by clear implication, only one of their authors, Florence Damon Cleary,
found Wertham's attack on comic books disquietingly convincing. The rest
of them emphasized that Wertham's conclusions connecting comic books
and juvenile delinquency were "controversial" or "unproven." Remarkably,
even those authors who responded to Wertham's arguments connecting
comic books with juvenile delinquency or racism ignored the fact that
Wertham's book about comics also included an entire chapter about the
negative effects of prior immersion in comic books on learning how to
read. They paid no attention to Wertham's specific attacks on
educational applications of comic books.
Educators and students lost interest in comic books as television and
later media partially replaced them, but comic books did continue their
sporadic presence in classrooms. In recent decades, several waves of
artistically ambitious works have helped to establish comics as a
serious medium and attracted the sustained, respectful attention of a
growing community of "comics scholars" at the college and university
Maryland's "Comic Book Initiative" does not propose to replace books
with comic books, nor does it require any teacher to use them. It aims
to use the attractiveness of carefully-selected comics to interest
students who do not like to read (especially boys); to help students
find pleasure in reading; and to give them a foundation to move up to
reading novels and other "regular" materials. It would be hard to find
anything bold, unprecedented or unreasonable in these goals.
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