Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Easy targets, but not the targets you think ...

Some days my job is just too easy.

A Maryland state senator named Nancy J. King is running for reelection on the pro-education ballot, promising to reduce cutbacks in education funding. There’s nothing wrong with the principle—indeed, I would happily pay higher taxes if it meant teachers got, say, a pay raise of 50% or more, effective immediately—but the advertisements King has sent out to make her point are ridiculous. Actually, they’re worse than ridiculous, but I don’t say words like those I’d need on a blog that kids may read. You can see the ad in question above, and choose your own vocabulary. If King had anything to do with the content of her message—that laying off teachers will reduce our beloved children to reading (shudder!) comic books—she should have a dunce cap permanently installed over her seat in the Maryland State Senate.

King is playing to the stereotype of comic books as low-quality entertainment for the barely literate, and of comic-book readers as grunting troglodytes unable to get through a 15-minute thriller without pictures to help them along. The idea, of course, is to frighten parents with the specter of their children reading comics, because everyone knows comic books are the mark of an illiterate person.

Fish in a barrel!

I know that most of the people who read this blog are at least open to the idea that comic books have some artistic, literary, and cultural value. You are, after all, reading a blog that frequently focuses on a novel about superheroes, and has a regular feature called “Comic Books You Should Be Reading.” But as I observed in my entry about Dungeons & Dragons a few months ago, I can’t afford to assume that everyone reading this thing is as nerdy as I am, or able to refute the scare tactics sometimes employed against nerd culture. So I’d like to clear up a common misconception about the world of four-color funnies, and the basis of King’s frankly slanderous ad—that comic books are inferior to “real” books, a mark of the functionally illiterate, and that reading them is a sign of a failure on the part of education.

Let’s start by defining our terms here. “Real” books, for the purposes of this argument, are usually defined as full-length novels or nonfiction works with relatively few pictures. They are, ideally, what we want our kids to end up reading. Comic books, by contrast, are traditionally magazines containing up to 32 pages of illustrated stories with words in narration boxes and speech and thought balloons, plus some advertisements. If you’re being generous, you might also include in this category graphic novels and trade collections of comic books—same format, just between better covers, longer and with few to no ads. The two significant differences between comics and “real” books, then, are length (either in page count or in word count) and quantity and quality of illustrations. “Real” books are better because they’re longer and don’t have (as many) pictures. Right?

But right away there’s a problem with these assumptions. Take the idea that “real” books are better because they’re longer. Many acclaimed works of literature are far shorter than the average comic book, and nobody complains that they’re inferior because of their length. The average Shakespearean sonnet has fewer words than an issue of X-Men and is considerably shorter than, say, The Da Vinci Code, but no one claims that Dan Brown is a better author than William Shakespeare. (At least nobody who isn’t soon beaten about the head by an English teacher.) Shorter too are a lot of flash-fiction works and many short stories, and yet nobody tries to ban them from English curricula. Clearly length alone does not disqualify a work of art from consideration.

True enough, you may say, but what about the pictures? Surely pictures are a crutch, there to make up for deficiencies in the text? Well, if images themselves are inherently lowbrow, you’d better toss out the Mona Lisa, stat. Even the combination of words and pictures does not necessarily reduce the value of a work; one need only look at illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells to see how words and images can together create breathtaking works of beauty, greater than the sum of their parts. Comic-book legend Stan Lee used to ask comics’ high-minded detractors whether they’d be interested in a comic book if Shakespeare wrote the words and Leonardo da Vinci drew the pictures. No intellectually honest person could say no to that one, and after that the argument basically boils down to complaints about the quality of particular words and the pictures. And with Pulitzer Prize winners writing comics and painters like Alex Ross illustrating them, this excuse is on shaky ground.

All right, I hear Ms. King saying, maybe comic books aren’t so bad for adults, but do we really want our children reading them? Well, yes, actually. We do. Comic books have an excellent track record in improving the skills of so-called reluctant readers—children and some adults who read below the level normal for their age and educational attainment, and who usually avoid reading by choice. The bright colors, striking visuals, and exciting stories can break through to readers who struggle with language barriers, learning disabilities, and other challenges, and often help them improve their skills. I began working with one reluctant reader two years ago, when reading and writing simple sentences was a struggle for him. Comic books and superhero-style book series like Percy Jackson and the Olympians finally got him into reading; now he’s on the honor roll and talking about going to law school when he’s older. I’m particularly fond of the story about the teacher being interviewed about comics who observed, “I can tell which kids read comics. They’re the ones who not only know how to spell ‘invulnerable,’ they can tell you what it means.” In fact, Maryland itself has an educational comic-book initiative in partnership with Diamond, the major comic-book distributor in the U.S. Oops.

So no, Ms. King, I can’t say I’d be upset to find any school-age child of mine reading comics, unless he or she were neglecting schoolwork to do so (and depending on the schoolwork, I might still be in favor). I can think of worse fates for kids than developing visual imagination and expanding vocabulary. By all means let’s support our teachers—they do a thankless job, for inadequate compensation, and suffer unnecessarily for their desire to help children learn—but let’s not take the kids’ comics away.

We wouldn’t want them to resort to reading your campaign ads, after all.

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