Monday, September 16, 2013

Comics & Literacy

Good morning, gentle readers.

Next week, I’m giving a talk on comics and literacy at one of our local libraries. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take this opportunity to produce a rough first draft of what I plan on saying.

So, without further ado...

I would like to start with a history of comics, which has followed different paths in different parts of the world.

Early predecessors of comic as they are known today include Trajan's Column and the works of William Hogarth. Rome's Trajan's Column, dedicated in 113 AD, is an early surviving example of a story told through sequential pictures. Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes, medieval tapestries and illustrated manuscripts also combine sequential images and words to tell a story. Versions of the Bible relying primarily on pictures instead of text were widely distributed in Europe in order to bring the teachings of Christianity to the illiterate.

However, it took the invention of the printing press to bring the form to a wide audience and become a mass medium. Early printed material concentrated on religious subjects, but through the 17th and 18th centuries, they began to tackle aspects of political and social life, and started to satirize and caricature. It was also during this period that the speech bubble was developed as a means of attributing dialogue.

One of the first creators of comics was William Hogarth (1697–1764). Hogarth created seven sets of sequential images on "Modern Moral Subjects." One of his works, A Rake's Progress, was composed of a number of canvases, each reproduced as a print, and the eight prints together created a story.

As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. These publications used illustrations as a means of commenting on political and social issues, such illustrations becoming known as cartoons in the 1840s. Soon, artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a story.

While surviving works of these periods, such as A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth (1726), can be seen to establish a story over a number of images, it wasn't until the 19th century that the elements of such works began to crystallize into the comic strip.

The speech balloon also evolved during this period, from the medieval origins of the phylacter, which was a label, usually in the form of a scroll, identifying a character through either naming them or using a short text to explain their purpose. Artists such as George Cruikshank helped establish such phylacters as balloons rather than scrolls, though at this time they were still called labels. They now represented story, but for identification purposes rather than dialogue within the work, and artists soon discarded them in favor of running dialogue underneath the panels. Speech balloons weren't reintroduced to the form until Richard F. Outcault used them for dialogue.

Rodolphe Töpffer, a Francophone Swiss artist, is seen as the key figure of the early part of the 19th century. Though speech balloons fell from favor during the middle 19th century, Töpffer's sequentially illustrated stories, with text separated below images, were reprinted throughout Europe and the United States. The lack of copyright laws at the time allowed these pirated editions, and translated versions created a market on both continents for similar works.

In 1845, the satirical drawings, which regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines, gained a name: cartoons. (In art, a cartoon is a pencil or charcoal sketch to be overpainted.) The British magazine Punch, launched in 1841, referred to its 'humorous pencilings' as cartoons in a satirical reference to the Parliament of the day, who were themselves organizing an exhibition of cartoons, or preparatory drawings, at the time. This usage became commonplace, lasting to the present day. Similar magazines containing cartoons appeared and became popular in continental Europe and the United States.

In 1865, Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch was published by a German newspaper. Busch refined the conventions of sequential art, and his work was a key influence within the form. Rudolph Dirks was inspired by Busch’s strip to create The Katzenjammer Kids in 1897.

It is around this time that Manhua, the Chinese form of comics, started to formalize, a process that lasted up until 1927. The introduction of lithographic printing methods derived from the West was a critical step in expanding the form within China during the early 20th century. Like Europe and the United States, satirical drawings were appearing in newspapers and periodicals, initially based on works from those countries. One of the first magazines of satirical cartoons was based on the United Kingdom's Punch, snappily rebranded as "The China Punch." The first piece drawn by a person of Chinese nationality was "The Situation in the Far East" from Tse Tsan-Tai, printed in 1899 in Japan. By the 1920s, a market was established for palm-sized picture books.

In 1884, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday was published, a magazine whose selling point was a strip featuring the titular character, and widely regarded as the first comic strip magazine to feature a recurring character. In 1890, two more comic magazines debuted to the British public, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips, establishing the tradition of the British comic as an anthology periodical containing comic strips.

In the United States, R.F. Outcault's work in combining speech balloons and images on Hogan's Alley and The Yellow Kid has been credited as establishing the form and conventions of the comic strip, though academics have uncovered earlier works that combine speech bubbles and a multi image story. However, the popularity of Outcalt's work and the position of the strip in a newspaper retains credit as a driving force of the form.

The 1920s and 1930s saw further booms within the industry. In China, a market was established for palm-sized picture books, while the market for comic anthologies in Britain had turned to targeting children through juvenile humor, with The Dandy and The Beano launched. In Belgium, Hergé created The Adventures of Tintin newspaper strip for a comic supplement; this was successfully collected in a bound album and created a market for further such works. The same period in the United States had seen newspaper strips expand their subject matter beyond humor, with action, adventure and mystery strips launched. The collection of such material also began, with The Funnies, a reprint collection of newspaper strips, published in tabloid size in 1929.

A market for such comic books soon followed, and by 1938 publishers were printing original material in the format. It was at this point that Action Comics #1 launched, with Superman as the cover feature. The popularity of the character swiftly enshrined the superhero as the defining genre of American comics. The genre lost popularity in the 1950s but reestablished its domination of the form from the 1960s until the late 20th century.

In Japan, a country with a long tradition for illustration and whose writing system evolved from pictures, comics were hugely popular. Referred to as manga, the Japanese form was established after World War II by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka expanded the page count of a work to number in the hundreds, and developed a style heavily influenced by the Disney animations of the time. The Japanese market expanded its range to cover works in many genres, from juvenile fantasy through romance to adult fantasies. Japanese manga is typically published in large anthologies, containing several hundred pages, and the stories told have long been used as sources for adaptation into animated film. In Japan, such films are referred to as anime, and many creators work in both forms simultaneously, leading to an intrinsic linking of the two forms.

During the latter half of the 20th century comics have become a very popular item for collectors and from the 1970s American comics publishers have actively encouraged collecting and shifted a large portion of comic publishing and production to appeal directly to the collector's community.

The modern, double use of the term comic, as an adjective describing a genre, and a noun designating an entire medium, has been criticized as confusing and misleading. In the 1960s and 1970s, underground cartoonists used the spelling c-o-m-i-x to distinguish their work from mainstream newspaper strips and juvenile comic books. Their work was written for an adult audience but was usually comedic, so the "comic" label was still appropriate. The term graphic novel was popularized in the late 1970s, having been coined at least two decades previously, to distance the material from this confusion.

In the 1980s, comics scholarship started to blossom in the U.S., and a resurgence in the popularity of comics was seen, with Alan Moore and Frank Miller producing notable superhero works and Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes being syndicated.

So, as you can see, comics have been around, in one form or another, for over a thousand years. But what about comics and literacy?

The use of comics in education is based on the concept of creating engagement and motivation for students. However, the effectiveness of comics as a medium for effective learning and development has been the subject of debate since the 1930s. In 1944, W.D. Sones noted that comics "evoked more than a hundred critical articles in education and non-professional periodicals."

Historically, the role of comics in American education was profoundly effected by anti-comics sentiment which held that comic books were a form of children's literature that was detrimental to the literacy, learning and mental health of its intended audience.

Views of comics as either beneficial or detrimental to child literacy in America grew out of the intense public scrutiny, criticism, and eventual self-censorship of American comics that came to a head in the 1950s.

The beginnings of American anti-comic book sentiment are widely attributed to an influential editorial first printed in the May 8, 1940 issue of the Chicago Daily News, written by Sterling North and entitled "A National Disgrace. "

North examined 108 periodicals, and found "At least 70 per cent of the total were of a nature no respectable newspaper would think of accepting," which lead him to describe the rise of comic books as a "poisonous mushroom growth" because "Ten million copies of these . . . serials are sold every month." This editorial established the criticisms of comic books that persisted throughout 1940s and 1950s America, and for far longer in library literature and academic perceptions.

The crux of North’s argument was that comic books were solely intended for children, and harmful to them. North’s "antidote" to comics, were print classics such as Treasure Island and children’s literature, which parents could locate in "any good bookstore or library." So, as early as 1940, comic books were described as being in opposition to proper literacy as represented by library materials. Basically, comics were the poison, library books the antidote.

The influence of North’s criticisms of comic books can in part be attributed to their enthusiastic adoption and promotion by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. In 1943, Mrs. Harry M. Mulberry discussed how she, in her role as chairman of Reading and Library Service of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, "…proceeded to enlist the parents and teachers of America in this crusade and started by mailing copies of this editorial to every state chairman in the Congress." Like North, Mulberry described comic books as a children’s genre that was harmful to youth in ways both physical and psychological. Mulberry’s article is but one example of how comic books received critical attention from teachers and librarians "parroting" North and each other. Teachers and parents feared comics would: "…crowd out reading of a more desirable type; they they were too easy to read and would spoil the taste for better reading; that the adventures were so fantastic that children would not acquire an understanding of the world that comes from better literature; that there was little progression of reading experience in comics; that the artwork was of inferior quality; that the books were poorly printed on cheap paper and hard on the eyes."

After World War II, the superhero genre of American comics was largely supplanted in sales by romance, crime, and horror comics. Mature themes in comics drew ire from the public as a cause of juvenile delinquency, a belief popularized by New York psychiatrist Frederic Wertham. Wertham published a number of articles linking comic books and juvenile delinquency and supplemented his articles with addresses before groups and organizations, radio and television appearances, and newspaper interviews all designed to stimulate action against comics.

Wertham based his arguments on the conception of juvenile delinquency as caused by "social influences that come to bear on the individual." The psychiatrist was primarily critical of crime comic books, but defined "crime" so broadly as to include almost any comic book. For Wertham, comic books constituted a public health problem akin to racism, a comparison encouraged by what Wertham perceived as racist content within the comics.

The popularity of Wertham’s writings can in part be attributed to their publication in widely read and highly respected journals such as the Saturday Review of Literature, Collier's, Reader's Digest and the magazine of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers.

However, Wertham’s work also drew criticisms and complaints regarding his unscientific methodologies. His work was described as "forensic" rather than scientific, criticized for never providing a statistical basis for his contention that the majority of comics exhort crime and violence. His clinical study techniques were similarly found wanting. Although Wertham claimed that he and his associates studied thousands of children, normal and deviate, rich and poor, gifted and mediocre, he presented no statistical summary of his investigations. He made no attempt to substantiate that his illustrative cases were in any way typical of all delinquents who read comics, or that the delinquents who did not read the comics do not commit similar types of offenses.

In April 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings on comic books, and Wertham published his treatise on the social effects of comics, Seduction of the Innocent. This ensured a high visibility for both and made Wertham’s work crucial to the study of the relationship between mass culture and juvenile delinquency. The Senate Subcommittee stated in its findings that while there were some indications from experts (including Wertham) that crime and horror comic books could have a deleterious effect on youth, particularly emotionally unstable youth, the lack of agreement among experts indicated a need for lengthy scientific study.The public perception that comic books were harmful to the literacy and psychological state of children only grew stronger.

After the national furor over the perceived link between comics and juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and the self-censorship of the American comics industry that followed, little attention was paid to links between comics and literacy until the 1970s. However, 1970s research into comics and reading relied heavily on opinion and anecdotal evidence, lacking much of the methodological rigor of the academic research done on comics reading during the 1940s and 1950s. Many educators and researchers in the 1950s, continued the trend of approaching comics reading with cautious optimism and the perpetual reassurance that readers would soon outgrow the comics and move on to more serious reading.

With the growth of the graphic novel movement in American comics in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, literacy educators, including teachers and librarians in primary, secondary, and higher education have approached the role of comics in the classroom with increasing interest and sophistication. A milestone in this cultural sea change is undoubtedly Art Spiegelman's graphic Holocaust survivor memoir Maus I: My Father Bleeds History receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. The prestigious award called attention to the sophistication, literary complexity, and socio-historical significance that the medium was capable of communicating.

Building on the formal affordances of comics for literacy education, and echoing earlier findings among comics researchers, the popularity of comics and graphic novels among teen readers presents educators with opportunities to harness their students interests in teaching literacy practices. In so doing, literacy educators increase and diversify the voices that our students experience in the classroom and suggest to them that literature may take various forms, even comic books. Such an act is important, for through it educators not only expand their studets reading horizons, but give themselves a starting point to discuss the complicated process of literary selection.

In the anthology Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel, editor James Bucky Carter and the many practicing secondary education teachers who contribute essays take up the challenge, offering multiple ways of using comics as scaffolding for students to learn critical literacy skills which can also be related to subjects as diverse as classic literature, history, and critical internet education.

Using comics creation is also seen as a means of teaching students in primary and secondary education critical literacy skills. For example, The Comic Book Project after school program helped students in urban high schools make literacy connections with their life experiences by having the students write and draw comics.

Much has changed from the cautious approval and unbridled fears of the use of comics in education prevalent during the 1940s and 1950s. However, some feel that approaches that use comics as scaffolding for teaching other forms of literacy go too far, tending to view comics reading as a "debased or simplified word-based literacy" and ignoring the "complex multimodal literacy" required of and taught by reading comics.

In 2003, capitalizing on the growing body of evidence that comics encourage reluctant readers to read more and talented students to gain in knowledge and creativity, the Maryland State Department of Education partnered with Diamond Comic Book Distributors and elicited the help of members of local school systems, higher education, adult and corrections education, and libraries. The goal was to develop a plan and instructional strategies that supported the use of graphic literature in elementary, secondary, adult, and corrections education. These materials were not used to replace traditional texts and instruction, but rather as a means to enhance reading instruction by motivating students to read more and better. The innovative programs developed included lessons and suggested materials for elementary grades first through fourth. These lessons were based on Maryland's Voluntary State Curriculum. Specialized instructional lessons designed with Disney Publishing Worldwide were piloted in Maryland and evaluated by the University of Maryland Baltimore County. These lessons and other parts of the program received widespread national and international attention.

The use of comics in the classroom has grown in the last decade. While students love these colorful tomes filled with graphically colored superheroes and provocative thought balloons, parents continue to wonder if they really do help children improve their literacy skills. Research done by not only writing and literacy experts but also instructional design proponents makes a strong argument for graphic novels and comics as a means to develop literacy.

Reluctant readers benefit a great deal from comics, according to Scholastic. Students in these groups fall into several categories. Some have not acquired grade-level reading skills. Others do not speak English as their first language.

Their ability to engage with comics in a way that they don't with traditional books may have to do with the pairing of words and pictures. Allan Paivio, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, formulated a learning model called dual coding theory. Studies that apply this theory in experiments have found that people better comprehend and remember what they read when they have not only words but also accompanying graphics to help them make sense of a written text.

Teachers don't just teach literature with comics; they also encourage their students to develop writing skills as well. According to an article by Ed Finkel on the Edutopia website, having students create their own comics gives them a chance to develop skills in storytelling and writing, and these students also become better listeners.

This may be related to the collaborative nature with which some organizations approach teaching comics. For example, the Comic Book Project has kids in its program work in groups to develop all aspects of a comic from brainstorming to the drafting of illustrations and stories.

Teachers have discovered that writing comics creates an avenue for students to develop important skills in reading, writing, spelling and vocabulary building. Students also get a better grasp on harder-to-teach concepts such as point of view. Finally, through the use of comics, they also learn about literary devices, which helps them to create engaging plots and write better dialogue for their characters.

In the classroom, teachers replace superhero comics with classic works of literature such as the plays of Shakespeare or the writings of Ray Bradbury. This opens these timeless tales up to readers who might otherwise have no interest in reading these stories. These stories impart important cultural and literary concepts, but also, more importantly, puts them into a form that students not only more readily embrace but actively seek out.

1 comment:

  1. WOW!! George that is a great read...a lot of facts I did not know about!