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Five Simple Things It’s Easy to Overlook About Comics
Guest Post by Carol Tilley
In January 2013 I gave a talk on comics and libraries at this year’s American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter. The gist of this talk was how librarians failed to capitalize on the enormous popularity of comics among young readers during the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, we often actively discouraged comics reading for fear that children and teens would become vicious and debased, as well as incapable of reading or enjoying ‘better’ literature. When in 1954 the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham along with the US Senate publicly scrutinized comics as a potential incitement for juvenile delinquency, librarians stayed silent. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when comics publishers implemented the Comics Code Authority later that year, eviscerating comics content and sending youth readership on a downward spiral.
During the discussion period for my talk at ALA Midwinter, one of the people in attendance asked how many librarians in the audience still encounter opposition from parents, teachers, or school administrators in promoting and collecting comics. I was astounded to see the majority of the librarians in the audience raise their hands.
Despite comics’ increasing popularity and critical validation, librarians working with young people still face resistance. Sometimes, I realize, that resistance also comes from within our own profession. Even though we may not realize it, let alone admit it, we librarians bear our profession’s legacy of fearing comics.
Trust me: I’m not trying to make you feel bad and I’m not trying to belittle our often beleaguered profession. I know that if you’re reading this blog post, you’re open to—if not a proponent of—comics in classrooms and libraries. I’ve spent my lifetime reading comics, and for the past twenty years—first as a high school librarian, then as a doctoral student, and now as a professor—I’ve been thinking critically about comics. But in realizing how much resistance to and suspicion of comics still abounds, I want to share a few simple things I’ve learned about comics that may help you if you are one of the librarians still working to convince people that comics have value in libraries.
- It’s okay to call them ‘comics.’
Comics is both a medium—some would say it’s an art form—and the texts produced in that medium. They take on different forms such as comic strips, comic books, webcomics, manga, and graphic novels. Comics can be short-form or long-form, serialized or stand-alone, and released as hardcovers, trade paperbacks, floppies, or ‘zines. They comprise different genres including superheroes, memoir, horror, funny animal, slice of life, and fantasy. They encompass various verbal and visual styles from ponderous to punny, abstract to realist.
Comics are created by people of all different ages for people of all different ages. They’re not only produced in North America and Japan: comics come from everywhere. There are comics creators and readers in diverse locales such as India and Ivory Coast, Mexico and Malaysia, Argentina and Australia, South Africa and Spain.
Don’t get too hung up on terms. Most important: don’t be embarrassed to call something a ‘comic.’
- Some readers won’t like comics.
If you were to step back in time to the 1940s and 1950s, you would perhaps be amazed to see almost every young person—boys, girls, kids, teens, black, white, brown, rich, poor—reading comics. In fact, reading comics was a more popular and pervasive pastime among young people during these years than playing video games is today! (If you’re wondering, the advent of television, the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, a contracting comics market, and a host of other factors contributed to the decline of comics readership among young people.)
We’re experiencing a renaissance of sorts in comics publishing and readership these days, and it’s tempting to think that comics are the answer to the question of how to reach reluctant readers. It’s important to understand, though, that even in that golden age of comics readership during the 1940s and 1950s, not every young person enjoyed reading comics.
We should not expect that every young person who visits our libraries today will be inspired or riveted or transformed by comics, and that’s okay. Libraries should have materials that interest everyone.
- Some readers will love comics.
Recently an acquaintance of mind posted on Facebook about a comic he read as a child. He was maybe eight years old and the comic was a random issue of Doctor Strange that had been abandoned by one of his older brothers. Reading that comic was transformative for him: he spent his adolescence searching for the next issue and continues to read comics today.
Any librarian who has worked with young people can recall at least one instance of a child or teen getting hooked by something they read or viewed. It’s fascinating and satisfying to observe. We can’t predict what particular comic (or other resource) might be the spur for a lifetime’s beguilement, so the best we can do is have varied and extensive collections that kids can explore.
Buy more than superhero comics. Study your readers, and anticipate what will get them hooked.
- Comics are more than stepping stones.
Sometimes librarians justify their comics collections by characterizing these materials as stepping stones or ladder rungs or delicious desserts. That is, they view comics as materials to get kids hooked on the reading road to better books. Yes, some comics are ephemeral fluff (but that’s not necessarily bad; see below). Still many comics have narrative depth, visual integrity, and compelling characters that have at least as much literary and artistic merit as more conventional texts for young people.
Comics can transport readers to hidden worlds like North Korea. They can help readers gain insight into history altering activities such as the development of the first atomic bomb. Young readers can experience nursery rhymes, folktales, and classic works of literature in new ways. Kids can get lost in a lush fantasy or learn about unconventional friendships. Girls can learn to find power within themselves, and so can boys.
- Comics can be—simply—fun.
As with nearly any kind of text, comics can be used for instructional purposes. In fact nearly eighty years ago as part of its first comprehensive curriculum document (The Experience Curriculum, Hatfield, 1935) the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommended integrating the study of comics in elementary and secondary school classrooms. They can also enrich readers’ lives and impart important moral lessons. Still, don’t forget that anytime we turn books into lessons and must-reads, we risk spoiling them for readers. (Poetry, anyone?) Use comics in the classroom, sure, but give kids and teens plenty of opportunities to find them on their own too. Libraries are about learning and knowledge, but they’re about helping people engage with stories, too.
As part of my current research, I have been interviewing people who were childhood comics readers during the 1940s and 1950s. Most of these folks are now in their seventies and eighties, but their comics reading experiences are vivid. They can speak in detail about the stories they remember and how they reenacted the exploits of their favorite superheroes. They tell me about the strategies they employed when figuring out what comics to purchase from the drugstore and the conversations they had with other comics readers about stories, characters, and creators. Yet often the interviewees distinguish their comics reading from ‘real’ reading. After all these decades comics still bear the taint of being something less than. Let’s change that for the young comics readers who visit our libraries.
A former school librarian, Carol Tilley is now an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. She teaches about and studies comics, youth services librarianship, and media literacy. Follow her on Twitter at CarolGSLIS, learn more about her research at http://www.caroltilley.net or e-mail her at email@example.com. And if you’re attending the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) this weekend, come hear Carol along with Josh Elder, David Rapp, and Jim McCann talk about how comics fit with the Common Core (Friday, April 26, 12:45 p.m., W470b).
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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