Teachers' Tales

Why comics? Dispelling myths about the genre


by Mathew Sullivan
on November 13, 2015

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Perhaps the more apt question would be, ‘Why not comics?’ Why not a major genre that children read voluntarily? Eagerly? There are a few presumptions surrounding comics that, due to their prevalence, restrict many children’s access to this fantastic medium to ‘out-of-school only’. Unfortunately, it also means that as educators, many of us miss out on the opportunity to use this amazing resource.

MYTH: Comics are not academically worthy.

One presumption is that comics are ‘low-brow’, juvenile, little more than glorified picture books. Devotees to this view would have you believe that comics have no place in school, and that their use is an indicator of pandering to children at the lowest common denominator. But is this idea based in truth? I went through a comic recently that I had lying around. In just 26 pages of Superman Unchained #5, I picked out the following vocabulary:

Neutralize, lineage, dwindling, senility, and more advanced vocabulary words

Compared to many primary-level books, the terminology used in this £2.99, 26-page comic is markedly advanced, and this is not a one-off. When one couples the language with artwork exploring perspective drawing and sequential illustration, the idea that this medium could be painted with a wide brush as ‘low-brow’ is absurd. We need a ‘no-brow’ approach – if literature enthuses pupils and we recognise its pedagogical potential, it should be utilised. Put this comic into any class library in the country, and watch pupils scramble to read it. And when they come to one of these words that they don’t understand, rather than giving up on it or glossing over it, watch them throw their hand up and ask – because they want to know. They care about these characters, and as educators we should recognise and harness that passion.

MYTH: Comics are only for intense fans.

In actual fact, the majority of teachers know more about comics than they may realise. Comics are everywhere right now; at the time of writing, three comic-based films sit in the list of top ten grossing films of all time. These heroes, the values they represent, their adventures, and the excitement they inspire, are rooted in the oldest traditions of storytelling.

Without even picking up a comic, chances are you know Batman’s real name, Superman’s weakness, and a lot more. With that in mind, think about what a quick flick through a 26-page comic might tell you. Or a 5 minute Wiki-search on a character that you know your class loves because half the pupils have lunchboxes with that character plastered all over them. Comics are one of the most accessible, yet least-used mediums in the classroom, and a perceived (and often utterly imagined) lack of comic knowledge should not be the cause of that.

MYTH: Only boys enjoy comics.

This is easily the most worrying myth. The idea that ‘comics are for boys – girls won’t be interested’ is frankly dangerous. When I present on CPD training courses, I share plenty of examples of pupils’ writing based on comics to show that my ideas work—and over 70% of these examples are written by girls. Unsurprisingly, the engaging, timeless characters, the suspenseful action and the emotional journeys all appeal just as much to girls as to boys. That is until some backward-thinking stick-in-the-mud comes along and suggests that comics are for boys, and that girls should be reading ‘proper’ books. The suggestion that girls don’t find comics as interesting as boys do is, to me, blatantly sexist and ignorant.

So, ‘Why comics?’ Because so many children love comics. Because comics are everywhere, and we’ve all absorbed more than we realise. Because comics span all ages, genders, ethnicities and intellects. Because their appeal is universal, their content inspirational, and their worth as educational tools absolutely immeasurable.

That’s why.

This extract is taken from Developing Writing Through Comics by Mathew Sullivan, a guide to using comics to improve literacy. It is available now at Creative Educational Press.

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