By Michael Gianfrancesco, Comics Education Outreach
“Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.”
—Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus, A Survivor’s Tale
When I first began teaching comics in the classroom over a dozen years ago, one of the most dependable brick walls that I could rely on encountering was the dreaded question, “How can you justify the use of comic books in a serious academic setting?” Although I hear it less today, there are still some skeptical educators and administrators that love to question the viability of comics and graphic novels in the classroom.
There are plenty of case studies, scholarly articles, and texts that are helpful in addressing these concerns, and I have found myself hiding behind one or more in the past. While these resources are always effective in opening a dialogue with administrators, when it comes to getting buy-in from other classroom teachers, the simple fact that comics make kids want to read is often a far more powerful explanation. And when my peers ask, “But how?”, I – like so many comic fans – often return to one of my earliest childhood memories as an example.
I was 12 years old. I was watching my best friend Anthony and his family packing up their antique-filled house in preparation for a move to a new state. As Anthony’s father cleaned out an old piano bench, he called me over.
“Put your hands out,” he said.
He slid a very old, very colorful comic out of a plastic sleeve and gently placed it into my outstretched hands. The cover depicted Superman holding up a car, smashing the front end into a rock as horrified witnesses ran for cover. It was Action Comics #1, 1938. The gravity of what I was holding hadn’t yet hit me. In that moment, I was just mesmerized by this book. I didn’t even hear Anthony’s mother creeping up behind me and putting her hands on my shoulders.
“You are going to remember this moment the rest of your life,” she said quietly.
And she was right. In fact, that moment lit a fire in me that burns to this day – a love of reading. From then on I started seeking out as many comics as I could find, visiting the public library to dig through the small gold mine of collected editions of classic hero comics form Marvel and DC. I cut my teeth on Silver Age Fantastic Four, X-men, Green Lantern and Batman anthologies. When I had exhausted all of those titles, I asked the librarian for suggestions of other stories with similar elements to comics. This began my journey from comics to more traditional chapter texts. I went from Stan Lee to J.R.R. Tolkien, from Alan Moore to Terry Pratchett. From Neil Gaiman to…well…Neil Gaiman. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.
Comics did that for me. It didn’t take a huge leap of logic to realize that it could do it for my students too. When I first started lending out graphic novels to kids in my classroom, the results were hard to argue. Kids devoured the books, sometimes returning the next day having already finished and begging for more. They spread the word that
“Mr. G” had comics to loan out in his classroom, and kids I had never seen before were timidly approaching me asking for my trade paperback of Aquaman, Pride of Baghdad, or Swamp Thing. I recalled then what the librarian had done for me: connecting chapter books to comics and showing me that a good story is a good story, comic or not. I started telling my students that if they liked Maus they should read Night; if they liked A Soldier’s Story they should read Band of Brothers; if they liked Smile, they should check out The Scarlet Letter or even Catcher in the Rye; and on and on…
We are always looking for in-roads to inspire our students to become readers, and it seems to get harder and harder with each passing year. But we all have stories in our lives about the moment we connect, truly connect, with a text, and are suddenly hungry for more. As a teacher, I have seen first-hand that comics and graphic novels have the power to open the door (or at least crack a window) to a love of reading for students, regardless of their backgrounds.
So if you, as a teacher, find yourself challenged to explain how “classics” like Shakespeare or Machiavelli could possibly measure up to Satrapi or Yang, I urge you to search your own history for the moment your love for reading was ignited. For students today, graphic novels and comics can offer a unique (and often untrodden) pathway to literacy, creativity, and a lifelong passion for reading.