I always knew that comics were special. The way they held my imagination hostage and always left me aching for the next issue has had a lasting impact on my life and left an indelible mark on the way I view and teach literacy. Without comics, it is doubtful that I ever would have developed the love of print and story I have today. Comics were my gateway drug to a lifelong addiction to narratives and truly opened me up to the various forms of literature I now enjoy.
As a young student learning to read, I was always behind my peers. I failed to quickly grasp decoding and comprehension strategies and seeing the gap between myself and my classmates only served to further discourage me from developing a love of reading. I eventually caught up to become an average reader, but it was on rare occasion that I was intrinsically interested in a book. Then, something happened. Looking back, it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but the day I picked up my first comic book played in instrumental role in shaping the person I am today. It was, if I recall correctly, the summer of 1990 and I was accompanying my mother on a delivery to the convenience store next to the Chinese restaurant my family owned. As usual, the clerk behind the counter let me help myself to a square of chocolate as a reward for being the delivery boy. I cheerfully accepted my chocolate and as we made our way out, I decided I’d try my luck and ask my mom to buy me another treat for all of my “hard work.” Knowing she didn’t approve of wasting money on baseball cards, I asked instead if I could get something to read for the evening ahead. To my delight, my mother obliged my request and I stepped up to the magazine rack. Scanning the available merchandise, the colourful break in the wave of monotonous magazine covers instantly caught my eye. From the moment I spied them, the comics called to me, and they will likely forever call to me like a siren calls wayward sailors with her song. The colours. The artwork. Batman! Eventually, I settled on a copy of Batman Annual #14, since it featured a character I was already familiar with from the previous summer’s blockbuster film starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson. I had also watched my fair share of Adam West re-runs. That’s how it all started. Every subsequent trip to a convenience store involved a comic book purchase and the corner store was where I obtained my comics until I found out there were stores that specialized in selling comic books.
When we got back to the restaurant, I sat down at the empty table nearest the cash register and with great anticipation, I placed my new treasure on the stark white tablecloth which served as a nice frame for the punchy cover of the comic book I now owned. Neal Adams’ grotesque portrait of Two-Face stared back at me and I hurried to open up to the first page. Then, I was hooked. Something about the way the medium amalgamated prose and visual storytelling awakened me to the startling truth that yes, I can read this, and I can understand the story even if I don’t understand all of the words. Without knowing it, I had begun to make inferences, using the picture clues to help me understand what was happening despite the fact that I didn’t recognize all of the words in the text. I innately knew how to approach the medium – how to decipher the meaning stored in this wonderful combination of pictures and words. Panels, captions, speech bubbles – it all made so much sense! This powerful revelation is precisely the reason I teach many reading comprehension skills and other subject areas using comics as an instructional resource. Their format and conventions seem to perfectly align with the manner in which kids understand linear storytelling. In my experience, early readers almost instinctively understand how a comic book works.
I also teach with comics because they are most assuredly high interest. Comics, in some ways, are more real than real life to young children. Before dismissing the previous sentence as mere hyperbole, let me say that for many, comics are an immersive experience. From the exaggerated colours and sound effects to the theatrical, often ridiculous costumes, comics are intensely vivid. They are also relatable. While kids sometimes have difficulty understanding or relating to their classmates in social situations, they rarely fail to sympathize with characters in a comic book. They understand when and why a character has been hurt both physically and emotionally, the latter of which often requires a fair amount of reading between the lines. They offer up personal connections to the stories and characters and relate anecdotes of times when they may have felt the same way.
Let me return to the assertion that comic books were my gateway drug in the world of literature for a moment. It wasn’t a quick transition at first – I would mainly read comics on a voluntary basis, continuing to avoid most prose books, but as I read more and more comics, I just couldn’t shake my need for a Spider Man or Batman fix in between issues. I no longer wanted to only read comics. I wanted to read about comics. I wanted to know what was coming up, what I had missed and who the people behind the comics were. In a desperate attempt to up my intake of Hulk and Daredevil, I resorted to the unthinkable: I read novels. Novels that just happened to feature some of my favourite characters, many of which I was pleased to see, were authored by the same writers that penned the monthly adventures I so adored. The floodgates had burst open and I was ready to experience all forms of literature. This was also helped along by the fact that while reading about my favourite writers, I discovered that they drew inspiration from traditional prose, as well as the comic book stories they grew up loving. If my favourite writers read “real books” too, well, so would I.
I once wrote a letter to Ron Marz, who, at the time, was writing my favourite monthly comic, Green Lantern. I asked for advice on becoming a comic book writer, and when he wrote back to me, he apologized for taking so long to respond (despite having absolutely no obligation to reply in the first place) and included a full script he did for an issue of Superboy, a signed issue of Green Lantern and most importantly, the best piece of advice I’ve ever received in regards to becoming a better writer: “Keep writing, and especially keep reading (and not just comics!).” The generosity, humility and willingness to interact with fans that creators often display never ceases to amaze me. Although I never attempted the journey to becoming a comic book writer, the letter he wrote to me encouraging me to keep reading is never far from reach.
Comics are magical. They make us laugh, cry and feel excited. They frighten us, make us fretful and leave us in suspense. Most importantly, they teach us about stories, about other people and about ourselves. And if nothing else, they can help a young child feel just a little less lonely in the fledgling stages of their odyssey in literacy. Yes, you can read this, and yes, you can understand it too.