Comic books are not just for entertainment, they can educate too

Comic books have been a popular form of literary entertainment for decades. For many it was seen as just that – entertainment. Super heros battling the bad guys, promoting good versus evil and giving children and adults alike an escape from reality.

But comic books, or graphic novels as they now referred to, go much deeper than colourful graphics and witty dialogue. They promote literacy.

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In fact, comics have been a literary tool in some schools dating back to the 1830’s. “There is a history of comics and literacy that dates back at least 180 years,” said Ryerson University English Department chair Andrew O’Malley, who uses comics as part of the curriculum in his English classes.

“There is a Swiss educator by the name of Rodolphe Topffer who in the 1830’s produced a series of books in the form of comic strips with the now familiar sequential panels with text underneath them. They were kind of satirical and comical but he did use them in school where he was headmaster to help with literacy,” he said.

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O’Malley says, in fact, most schools in Canada are now using comics to help teach kids about subjects like Canadian history – the Louis Reil graphic novel by Chester Brown is a perfect example.

“It was really in the 90’s with the boom of the graphic novel that there was a kind of widespread popular recognition that there was a literary and artistic quality to these materials … Really the watershed moment was Art Spiegelman’s Maus that went on to win the Pulitzer, and since then, they have gained greater and greater legitimacy … Their increasingly being used at schools now.

“Big Canadian success story in that regard is the Louis Reil book Chester Brown produced in the early 2000’s. That was adopted by a number of school boards to teach Canadian history.”

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But comic books have had a rocky past. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s they took a bit of a dark turn. Comics like Tales From The Crypt, Weird Terror, Chamber of Chills, and The Vault Of Horror came out with a focus on death, violence and the unknown. It was at that point comics became a form of sub-literature that was seen as a dead end to literature.

“People started seeing them instead of a stepping stone to literacy as a literacy dead end or as an entertainment product that stunted the moral development of children and was kind of an obstacle to acquiring more sophisticated reading skills,” O’Malley explained.

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But comic books have also given us the best of the best. From Superman to Spiderman, Captain America to Wonder Woman, readers have been entertained for decades all while reading page after incredible page.

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Canada developed its first comics in the early 1940’s during World War II, after a Canadian act prevented imports of luxury goods from the United States. Among those products included comic books.

Children had already become attached to the American heroics of the likes of Superman, so the demand for comics was very high in Canada. As a result a series of Canadian comics were created.

“Wow, along with the other comics that followed it, Triumph, Active, Dime, Commando, it was a variety comic. So it would have different of stories with lots of different characters that children could get used to new characters, and a lot of them very Canada and had Canadian content,” Alison Skyrme, the Special Collection librarian at Ryerson University, tells Global News.

Johnny Canuck was a very popular Canadian super hero who was often depicted fighting evil characters like Hitler during the Second World War.

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Back to influence on literacy – comic books are said to be a very sophisticated form of literature. As O’Malley explains, the pictures and the text do not match perfectly. In other words, the text does not explain the image and the images do not supplement the text.

Reading comics actually requires your brain to multi-task – interpreting both the image and the text. “There is actually a very sophisticated kind of interaction going on. So comics reading requires pretty advanced decoding,” O’Malley says.

Something to think about the next time your kids delve into the next adventures of Spider-Man versus the Green Goblin!