Beyond being a stepping stone to encourage reluctant readers to embrace more sophisticated texts, comics and graphic novels are a legitimate form of literature and in many cases, are just as challenging as purely alphabetic works, according to an English professor who has recently authored a book on the subject.
“Many people argue they are actually as demanding or more demanding because you have to be such an active reader in order to make sense of everything that’s going on,” said Dale Jacobs, author of Graphic Encounters: Comics and the Sponsorship of Multimodal Literacy. “You can read them on a very simplified level, but you’re going to miss most of what’s actually there.”
The recently released book covers everything from how the comics industry was attacked in the 1940s and 50s by those who declared the medium an assault on literacy, to how it was embraced by organized religion, and eventually how libraries sponsored literacy through comics.
Dr. Jacobs, who grew up in rural Alberta, was a self-described “Marvel kid” who used to plunk down his allowance every week on the latest issues of Spiderman and The Fantastic Four. These days, he still reads the odd super hero comic but is more focused on graphic works that deal with subjects ranging from the civil rights movement (March) to the Boxer rebellion in China (Boxers and Saints).
“When I was growing up comics were considered something that needed to be kept outside of school,” said Jacobs, who teaches courses on comics and earlier this year received the 2013 University of Windsor Alumni Award For Distinguished Contributions to University Teaching. “Maybe you read them as a kid, but you graduate to ‘real’ books as people called them. And then people started to see that comics might be a way to bring in reluctant readers, usually young boys who were 10 to 14 and didn’t like reading. Libraries were on the forefront of that. But the emphasis was always seen as a way to move from there to alphabetic texts.”
Using comics is still a good method of promoting alphabetic literacy, but it isn’t the only way to think about them, Jacobs said.
“I think you can use comics as a way to encourage kids to read alphabetic texts,” he said, “but also as a way to get them to see that there are lots of different kinds of literacies. The ability to make meaning from different texts is important because they’re going to encounter all kinds of them in the world. We should teach texts in the classroom that will help them be prepared to encounter all kinds of texts.”
Jacobs will discuss the book when he appears today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.