Monday, June 16, 2008

Comics, are they still relevant?

Many people over the age of 50 grew up reading comics in their spare time. Comics had their genesis in the satirical works of artists like Rudolph Töpffer, Wilhelm Bush, Christophe, or the Brazilian Angelo Agostini in the 19th century. In 1827, Töpffer created a comic strip and later seven graphic novels. In 1837 Töpffer created "The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck" which is considered to be the earliest known comic book.

But it wasn’t until 1895 that Richard Outcault created "Yellow Kid" that is generally cited as the first comic strip. This was the first work to use the balloon to carry the spoken words of the characters. You can read a fuller account of the history of the comic here.

As a child I grew up reading comics regularly. The newspapers had regular comic strips that were eagerly read each day and most children had access to comics that were part of their recreational reading. Comics like Superman, Tarzan, Richey Rich, The Phantom, and Disney classics like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were common. They were generally seen as ‘low art’ and were frowned upon by teachers and librarians. When television came in the 1950s in Australia and earlier in the USA and the UK the comic book declined in popularity.

There were also other early formats such as the larger comic album that was more common in continental Europe, especially Belgium and France, with the most famous being the Tintin series first published in 1929 and still read up till today. Another format is the graphic novel that can either be a serialised novel with illustrations or simplified version of a novel with pictures (either illistrations or in comic form).

Today comics are still the passion of many Baby Boomer collectors and they still have a place in the recreational reading habits of small numbers of people in most cultures, with the possible exception of Japan, where the manga or comic is huge and is popular with adults and children alike (see a brief review here).

The comic has always had two places in art and literature. The main purpose of the genre that most would call comics, has been to amuse and entertain, but there has always been a more serious side to the comic or cartoon, with significant satirical, political and ideological purposes. Even writers of children’s books have experimented regularly with the comic format. Notable in recent times have been works like Raymond Briggs "When the Wind Blows" (1986) that tells of the impact of an atomic blast on an elderly British couple who approach the impending disaster as if they were simply trying to survive the Blitz of WWII.

It seems that in recent times the comic has been making a comeback. A recent newspaper report by Sue Corbett suggests that the ‘graphic novel’ as one variation of the comic, is growing in popularity again and appearing in new forms.

"The themes and genres can range from science to biography, and from memoirs to yes, superheroes.....Every subject is available in the format."

There are now graphic-novel editions of the works of Shakespeare, and many classics such as The Red Badge of Courage, Beowulf, Greek myths, The Adventures of Robin Hood, even The Canterbury Tales.

In an American 5th grade classroom that Corbett describes, there have been good results from pulling graphic novels into the classroom. In the words of the teacher:

"They don't even realize they're reading a book. They just whiz through them......It hooks my really strong readers and my struggling readers.....They're just wild about them."

Graphic novels are not new. The Boys Own and Girls Own annuals that were around as early as the 1870s incorporated extracts of novels with graphic support, and later versions (1930s to 1960s) incorporated even more of this genre and even cartoons. Illustrated Bibles and classic illustrated stories have also been around for many years. The first book I can remember reading as a child was an illustrated version of Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" that I read when I was about 7 years old. This was published in 1954.

John Shableski of Diamond Book Distributors says sales of graphic novels have climbed from $43 million in 2001 to $330 million in 2006. Much of this is fuelled by schools and libraries simply trying to get children reading at a time when reading for pleasure is being threatened by computers, gaming, cable TV etc. Teachers have found that they are able to hold children's attention longer with graphic material.

Is this a good thing? Yes, I think it is. If we put to one side what can happen to great novels when they are simplified or serialized badly, there is merit in this approach to reading. And while I would not want children to grow up on a restricted diet of comic books or graphic novels of lower literary merit, there is a place for this material if it gets children reading earlier and for longer. Boys in particular respond well to graphic novels and comics so I would encourage parents and teachers to consider them as one way to get children reading more. Of course once you do have children reading for pleasure the aim should be to encourage them to branch out to read other genres and more varied and demanding material.

You can read the Sue Corbett article in full here.


Terry Doherty said...

Trevor, another great post. You have a very thoughtful, down-to-earth way of reaching parents!

Feel free to Jump in the Tub!

What Happens Next, the Reading Tub blog

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Terry, I like your site and blog too. I've linked to the Reading Tub which I'm sure Australian teachers and parents will love for the reading lists alone.

Lobster Press said...

Hey Trevor - I just posted an article about the reading crisis (do kids still read?) for the Lobster Press blog and I discovered your blog while researching. Such thoughtful pieces - I really admire the devotion to encouraging kids to read. If you would like, you can read the article on the blog at