When we go to the school book fair and my nine-year-old picks up a graphic novel, I admit, I cringe inwardly. There aren’t as many words in there, I whine to myself. I’m gonna pay eight bucks for this thing and she’ll finish it in half an hour.
And yet, I know these inner thoughts are triggered by unwarranted bias, not to mention hypocrisy. When I was a kid, my mom used to buy me an Archie comic book almost every time we went to the grocery store. Though, to be clear, the Archie comics I read in the late ‘80s were filled with regressive storylines of two girls who were “friends” competing for one guy who couldn’t make up his mind, all while perpetuating the stereotype of the plain-Jane smart girl and the mysterious, seductive bitch. I wouldn’t let my kids read these without some major discussions about the storylines.
Problematic storytelling aside, I was obsessed with these Archie comics. And though it may have only taken me half an hour to finish each one — except the Double Digests which would vacuum up one entire blissful hour of my day — I read them over and over again. My Archie comics were stored in cardboard boxes because my bookshelves were already stuffed to overflowing with my collection of Nancy Drew and R. L. Stine books. I kept my boxes of Archie comics in a rotation, gobbling and re-gobbling them until I had them memorized.
So, if I read so many comic books as a kid, why do I feel this resistance when it comes to buying comics for my own kid? It’s not the money — she’ll read them over and over just like I did. She’ll get my money’s worth.
I think, for me, it’s mostly that I harbor a bias that somehow graphic novels aren’t “real” books — because of the pictures. But that doesn’t mean they don’t provide an opportunity for real reading, and it doesn’t mean my daughter isn’t getting any benefit out of reading these books, or that she’s somehow being harmed by them. Does it?
For some, graphic novels feel simply inferior to chapter books. But, for others, if only subconsciously, graphic novels represent a kind of dark underground culture, something that feels rebellious and volatile, perhaps even a bit anarchist. This may not be a conscious bias, but it’s real. The vestiges of our collective social unease surrounding graphic novels and graphic novel culture stem from a time in the middle of the twentieth century when graphic novels were institutionally demonized.
During the “comic book inquisition” of 1954, graphic novels were literally put on trial in what is now the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse (then called the Foley Square U.S. Courthouse) in New York City. In televised hearings, a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee investigated the potential contribution of the comic-book industry to juvenile delinquency.
“Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry,” accused Fredric Wertham, a prominent and well-respected psychiatrist of the day who had written a book vilifying comics called Seduction of the Innocent. His data linking comic books to juvenile delinquency was later found to have been exaggerated or outright falsified, but the damage had been done. By the time the 1954 trial was over, 70% of Americans believed that comic books led to juvenile delinquency. Maybe some of that bias has stuck with us.
Today’s comics and graphic novels (comics are like magazines, and graphic novels are bound like books) are as varied as any other genre, even more varied really, because graphic novels can fall under any genre an ordinary book can while also being under the larger “graphic novel” genre. In fact, librarians have a hard time finding just the right place to shelve graphic novels because of this vast diversity in content.
“Shelving all graphic novels together, for instance,” states the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), “has occasionally led to parents complaining that their kids have mistakenly picked up an inappropriate book due to its proximity and visual similarity to books targeted at older teenagers or adults.”
My kids generally gravitate toward graphic novels that depict the storylines from their favorite book series (Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland is all the rage at the moment; even I have gotten sucked in, I’m on book seven, help me). My kids wouldn’t go looking for the accompanying graphic novels in the “graphic novel section.” They’d expect these volumes to be lined up right alongside their beloved original series. As it should be, because it’s time to start viewing graphic novels as “real” books.
Today, experts say it’s perfectly fine, even beneficial, for kids to read graphic novels. The University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning found that “comic books average 53.5 rare words per thousand” — higher than the averages found in children’s books (30.9) or even adult books (52.7).
Educators are even beginning to experiment with using comics for classroom instruction. More research has yet to be done on this, but early studies seem to indicate that memory retention improves when educational material is presented in comic format. In a study of 140 graduate students in a strategic management class, Jeremy Short, strategic management chair of University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business, found that 80 percent of his students preferred a graphic novel treatment of class material compared to the text-only version.
But what we need to acknowledge most is that all reading is good reading. If a kid wants to read graphic novels, let them. If they want to read below grade books, picture books, “unimaginative” non-fiction, let them. Forcing kids to read stuff they don’t want to read can backfire by turning them off to reading in general, making it seem like a chore. Encouraging them to read for enjoyment helps instill a love of reading, and that really is the point here.
My collection of Archie comics may have slightly skewed my view of what is normal and acceptable when attempting to woo a boy (I was a bookish Betty to the core, desperate to be a mysterious Veronica), but the series also sparked my love of reading and inspired my artistic creativity. I drew my own comics, replete with multidimensional characters and complex story lines, developing my love for art and literature and laying the foundation for my eventual career as a novelist.
I see the same happening with my daughter. Volumes of journals line her bookshelves, each filled with sketches of characters, their descriptions and histories lining the margins around their windswept hair, stomp-the-bad-guy superhero boots, and determined, fiercely squinted eyes. She devours an entire book series and then eagerly awaits the publication of their comic counterparts.
I suppose it’s time I lay my ridiculous inward biases aside and go get my wallet.