By Kevin Hodgson
COMIX WITH CONTENT is a series of comic books produced by writer and illustrator Bentley Boyd in a way that engages young learners on a variety of levels in the subjects of history and social studies. The comic collections are grouped around different themes (such as The Civil War or The First Americans) and each bound book consists of a series of about two dozen one-page comics. This compilation technique is no doubt the result of these being first published in the newspaper (The Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia) but it also makes it quite handy for the teaching of concepts in the classroom. Boyd also titles each comic page with an essential question. In the COMIX WITH CONTENT: GOVERNMENT BY THE PEOPLE comic, for example, I turned to the section on presidential elections. The overarching titles for the comics here range from "Who Represents in America" to "Who Goes to Electoral College?"
Which is to say, these comics could have been boring and seen as yet another cute use of comics. But they are not. Boyd wisely enlists the use of a handy mascot -- a blue crab named Chester -- to show the reader all of the ins and outs of a given topic of history. Chester cracks jokes, engages in the art of puns, and often brings along a "student" from modern day right into the historical period of the comic.
For example, the five pages of the section around United States presidential campaigns is an interesting look at how the president gets elected, with clear explanations about the two main political parties, an overview of the concept of representative democracy and even an investigation into the ethical responsibilities of candidates to speak truthfully and civilly in a campaign (perhaps someone should pass this book along to the Democratic and Republican National Committees).
A related book in the series – COMIX WITH CONTENT: CONSTITUTIONAL CONSTRUCTION – examines how the United States Constitution was constructed, and why it was created the way it was, starting with the philosophical ideas of John Locke, moving through the heated debates of James Madison and Patrick Henry over the separation of religion and government, and ending with the creation of the three-part government and balance of powers. That's a lot of ground to cover, yet Boyd does it so effectively and with such good humor (using Star Trek analogies along the way, even) that I barely realized that I was learning new things as I was reading.
Boyd packs a lot of punch into his one-page comics, using Chester the Crab as a humorous foil in contrast to the serious nature of the topics at hand. The cartoon elements of the comics are playful and dense. For example, on the comic entitled "How Do Parties Pick Candidates?", Boyd uses almost the entire page, showing a bicycle race between a pack of donkeys and a herd of elephants. We see some of the party candidates "crashing" due to lack of funds and lack of voter support, and winners emerging victorious at the finish line. This visual strategy is very effective, and Chester is not the only source of humor. I may be wrong, but in one of the books in the series, I think I saw an image of Weird Al Yankovich peeking out from behind a rock. You never know when you might come across a reference to science fiction or a superhero (such as when the hero, Pressman, is introduced to explain the concept of the free press in a democracy). Boyd understands the power of the visual and he uses it to good effect here.
Publisher: Chester Comix
Color: Full color
The books in the series are readily available at Amazon.com and cost only $5.95 each. You can preview some of the books at Boyd's site.
IN THE CLASSROOM
The COMIX WITH CONTENT series would be valuable for any classroom, although I would guess the primary audience would be middle school students. Boyd has said that he purposely puts a question in the title because he imagines that teachers could use that as a writing prompt before sharing the comic itself. Boyd thinks like a teacher. The COMIX WITH CONTENT: GOVERNMENT BY THE PEOPLE comic would be a good companion to a textbook and the front pages of the newspaper these days. Students could even compare and contrast the ways that a writer might relay important information in multiple media. After all, a single page comic provides a tight frame for information and a writer, such as Boyd, has to determine the best way to get the main message across. For teachers, there is also a handy index at the end of each comic book, giving page numbers for references inside the text. And Boyd has been developing lesson plans for teachers using his comics. The lesson plans are free at his website.
I would highly recommend any of the books in this series for the classroom. Boyd effectively uses the comic medium to relay important concepts to the reader and all of the comics in this series seem thoughtful, dense and fun to read. Although the comics could be read by a wide spectrum of students, the text and concepts are probably more appropriate for middle school and lower level high school students. (Although even young readers would get a kick out of following Chester the Crab around).