Monday, December 28, 2009


By Chris Wilson

Comics can be hard to read.

After I typed the sentence above, I sat at my computer for several minutes contemplating the ramifications of such a statement. I got up, poured a cold drink of water, rummaged about the house, watched some television and later sat back down in front of the Mac and stared at these six words.

Comics can be hard to read.

I have spent a great deal of time making the case for comic literature in education. While I don’t think I have ever made a generalization stating comics are easy to read, I have at least implied that the format is a simpler form of communication due in part because of the duality of image and text. Perhaps, this “simpler form of communication” idea is a lingering effect of the comics-are-just-kid-stuff mentality that I subscribed to in my own childhood. Never the less, it is an erroneous one, or at the very least a partial truth. To be more accurate, I think I should state that comics is a different form of literary communication.

For my daughter, reading came quickly and easily. We all know those students, the ones who take to reading as if it is an instinctive process. While that seemed true for my progeny it is not the case for many (dare I say most) of the students in my school, nor I suspect in your school.

Recently, I was Skyping with some curriculum directors in a school district in Illinois. They were very interested in comic literature as a part of curriculum. One member asked a very pointed and appropriate question, one in which I had previously given little thought. She stated that she has tried to read graphic novels and has a very hard time. The process is slow and cumbersome for her, a person who – by her own admission – is a prolific and fast reader of traditional texts.

Instantly, I thought of my friend from college who was one of the brightest among our group of friends. An avid reader herself – one who can read quickly and also comprehend and analyze minute details – she made a very similar comment to me several years ago. She just didn’t like comics. They were hard to read – slow – and she didn’t get it.

It finally occurred to me that I have neglected to contemplate the roadblocks that highly accomplished, traditional readers encounter. It has been my observation that a great many teachers were also adept students, and many of us may not be able to truly empathize with struggling students. These two ladies were experiencing what many of my students experience: frustration with reading and comprehension. It’s just that in this case, the reading was in the form of comics and the frustration was with avid, adult prose readers.

Here were my off-the-cuff suggestions during our Skype:

  • Comics are not meant to be read quickly. Give yourself permission to read slowly.
  • Reading comics is like reading a book and going to an art museum at the same time. We are supposed to treat the images as vital, integral components to the reading process, not as a tertiary element added at the end to make things look pretty.
  • Many avid readers are tempted to only read the text, or to give the images a cursory look. That is a grave mistake and will leave the reader with only half or less of the intended story.
  • “Read the Pictures!” This is my mantra when I discuss comics with anyone.
  • Reading comics takes practice.

J.R.R. Tolkien (THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS) is well known for his pages-long descriptive narratives, especially in RINGS. He spends paragraph after paragraph describing the landscape. His detail is such that I have often heard complaints from newcomers that the book is boring and slow.

In comics those descriptive passages are translated into images. Oftentimes, there are subtle clues hidden in the art that requires careful study. How is a character standing? Look at his body language? What are her facial features telling us about what she thinks or how she feels? Why is that picture in the background hanging on the wall? What is the artist telling us by placing that vase on the table?

It can be true that for some comics those details are less important and may even be haphazard. The same is true in traditional texts as not every detail in every traditional novel is there for a specific reason. For others, however, every single detail on every single page tells the reader something about the larger narrative. WATCHMEN (our articles/reviews here, here here, and here) is a perfect example of how details are everything. Every clock, every poster, every single detail is illustrated for a reason and serves a specific purpose in the story. As I stated in my bullet list above: Read The Pictures!

A picture walk can be an exemplary reading strategy when teaching comics. A picture walk is a reading technique used with young students. It describes the act when the reader flips through a book and makes predictions and inferences based on the art. Then the reader goes back and reads the story. Typically, this is taught to a child reading a picture book, but the same principal also applies to grown-ups and to comics. I often do a picture walk before reading a comic to help me 1) slow down and 2) get a feeling for the setting, style, and even the theme. There are times when I do a picture walk page-by-page, or chapter-by-chapter, or sometimes even as a whole book although I do that less often.

I did have one practical solution for this teacher in Illinois: Read THE ARRIVAL, a brilliant and beautiful wordless comic by Shaun Tan. THE ARRIVAL is a classic immigrant story but it is told in a fantasy setting. Whenever one of my students checks it out, we have a talk about reading slowly. I have observed more than one student sit down with THE ARRIVAL and flip through it within minutes, calling the book “done”.

I always smile when this happens and ask them about the story. They will, inevitably, tell me it was a cool story. When I ask them what it was about they will tell me it was about a little white creature and a guy. Students often miss the actual immigrant story, the key component.

That’s when I offer some scaffolding and explain that the story is about an immigrant, a guy who leaves his country to live somewhere else. We then look at the pictures together and I ask probing questions about what is going on. Why does he look confused? How does he communicate? When we read THE ARRIVAL we are also immigrants. We cannot make out the signage in the streets and we cannot understand the words of the people in the new world. Like the main character, we must also do our best and figure out what is happening using drawings and impromptu sign language.

It is my belief that if a successful traditional reader engage in THE ARRIVAL, the importance of the images in comics becomes glaringly clear, allowing the traditionalist to break down the barriers that may prevent them from understanding the comics process.

Another concern for this educator was that if she struggled with reading comics, how are her students – especially those who struggle with reading – going to fare? Children are digital natives and are more proficient at interpreting visual stimuli than adults, especially those over the age of 30, otherwise known as digital immigrants. Digital natives have very little trouble, in my experience, at discerning panel sequence (the order in which to read the various panels on a comic page). This includes students at all levels of reading comprehension.

I often find that struggling and reluctant readers take to reading after discovering comics. Unlike the two ladies I have discussed who find comics difficult, students, especially reluctant and struggling readers, tend to find comics more accessible than traditional texts. It is also my experience that comics aficionados are often very well-read when it comes to traditional novels. Many of them will attribute their love of reading all materials to comics.

Taking this into account, what do we do to encourage students to move beyond comics? A large majority of the students in my comic book club are great readers. They check out comics from me and then go to the school library and check out chapter books. They read both. My school librarian has also noticed this trend and is very encouraged by the excitement with which our comic book kids check out traditional books from the school library.

I have always maintained that students should not be singular readers. That is to say, they should not just read novels, or magazines, or newspapers or comics. Rather, a proper and comprehensive education in the 21st century makes use of various reading materials in order to engage students in the process of reading. We should embrace many forms of communication. If students hate reading, they will never become readers. Period.

In fact, a staunch adherence to traditional literature-only could (suggested by some research) lead some students to abandon reading altogether. It all comes back to choice. Choice has been shown to be a significant determinant in reading motivation. Studies have clearly shown that comics are a top choice for students and lead to reading of other forms.

Sometimes reading comics is not easy, but the same can be true with traditional novels. Some are harder than others. There are some we need to take a class to understand and others we can rip through.

Comics can be hard, but just as we tell our students to stick with it and practice their traditional reading, so too, I offer that same advice to those who find the comics format awkward. If we use good reading strategies, no matter what format we are reading, and we practice, we will develop the skills we need to interpret all manner of data.


A Reader's Community said...

I really struggled when reading the Buffy Season 8 graphic novels for my own enjoyment. It was the first time I'd read adult novels and I had to go back and read them again. I found that I did the same thing with The Arrival, and my students still found things I hadn't seen - it's why I think they're great books to study together

Unknown said...

Comics ARE difficult to read! A wonderful statement, and very true.
My first real engagement with a graphic novel was Maus (read both volumes in one sitting), and then Watchmen...once you read a work like Watchmen (yes, where every detail counts for something) a few times, you begin to "re-train" your brain to absorb the words and pictures together, as one communication. I enjoy your blog very much -- it seems our blogs have their names in common (mine is Great minds think a like?