Monday 29 September 2014

Comics and Literacy, part 1: Why Reading Comics Matters

(Fig. 1: some comics, which are awesome)

Booktrust and Save The Children recently launched their Read On, Get On campaign; spreading awareness of a crisis in literacy rates, aiming at a target of every child leaving primary school to be able to read well by 2025, and calling on politicians of all parties and indeed the general public to do all they can to support this crucial goal.
I – obviously – applaud this initiative, and support its aims entirely. It's prompted a lot of discussion amongst the kind of people I follow on twitter, and I wanted to try and organise here in some semi-coherent fashion my thoughts on the role comics have to play in all this. Because I think comics can be a huge part of the solution to falling literacy rates. And indeed, I think their disappearance in the last 20-30 years from their previously central space in children’s lives in this country may well be a part of the reason for that crisis.

I'll kick things off in the traditional way when examining social problems: by sounding like an old man and moaning about how much better things were In My Day. (There'll only be a bit of this, I promise.) The role comics played in the childhood of many of my generation, and even more so the further you go back, was huge – and in hindsight, crucial. Comics were everywhere, and often free – stacks of them lying in ‘rainy day’ chests at school, at clubs, at mates’ houses, in dentist’s waiting rooms. There’d be a bunch to choose from and even if they didn’t have any of your favourites, what the heck, they were still comics right? And there was always a fresh crop to be had every week anyway, from every newsagent and corner shop in the land, at prices realistically within the realm of pocket money while still maybe even leaving enough change for a bag of Skips.

I'm honestly not just going to wallow in nostalgia here, mourning for some lost Golden Age of Kids’ Comics. I just wanted to outline a few of the key aspects of that situation, to highlight the differences between where we were and where we are now. Namely:
  • RANGE. This barely needs stating, right? We all know this? There used to be a huge range of children’s comics widely available across the country, and now there is The Beano. I’m simplifying slightly, but not much. A wider range is out there, of course. There are many, many people making genuinely great comics at the moment, but I think it is fair to say they simply are not on the cultural map of the vast majority of the population. They’re not in WH Smiths, or your corner shop, or really any place a kid is likely to be going on a weekly or more regular basis.
  • AFFORDABILITY. Most comics, these days, are not easily within the Pocket Money Affordability Range. And there are reasons for this, sure, in terms of printing methods and rising production values and distribution models and what have you. But the end result is: comics that you are not going to be able to buy a couple of and still afford a bag of Skips.
  • (Do they still make Skips?)
  • (Am I just not giving my kid enough pocket money?)
  • Anyway, these two factors in part explain and contribute to the main difference, which is:
  • ACCESSIBILITY. Comics used to be around - very easy to encounter and get in the habit of reading, without having to particularly set out to do so. And now, by and large, they're not. They were the water in which we swam, and now they are a remote legendary spring on a mountainside somewhere. They're still there, but only for the seekers and the kids whose parents can afford nice houses up on top of the mountain. The majority, sadly, probably aren't going to make the trip.

So, how did we get here? And does it matter? Do comics still have any relevancy to children, anyway? Haven’t we ended up in this reduced state because kids simply stopped caring about comics, moving onto video games and minecrafts and blah blah whatever we’re all supposed to be worried is ruining kids this week?

Firstly, let's just demolish any hint of a pretense that 'do kids still like comics?' is even a question. I could throw any amount of anecdotal evidence at you from myself and other comics creators who work with schools and libraries and children's literary festivals, anecdotal evidence that would border on "evangelical". Or alternatively, you could just look at the extraordinary sales figures of children's comics and graphic novels in other parts of the world. Children still like comics, to the best of my knowledge, in Japan and Europe and India and every other damn place. Raina Telgemeier sells 7 gajillion copies of every new comic she makes in the US. So let's just knock that on the head. Children still like comics. They love comics, when they get a chance to actually read some. So how did we reach this point where that's no longer happening in this country?

How We Got Here

There are essays and opinion pieces and twelve-volume histories to be written on that point, and I don’t want this to descend into negativity and accusations and recriminations. But I do think it's worth taking a second to address it here, as part of demolishing the aforementioned 'do kids still like comics?' not-even-a-question. Personally, I think there’s a couple of factors that help explain it:

  1. a resource drain from both the UK and the field of children’s comics, as both creators and publishers chased after new markets and artistic legitimacy by competing to show who could make the most ‘mature’ works. (‘Mature’ in this sense meaning, broadly speaking: stories about Batman dealing with erectile dysfunction)
  2. the increased focus of the remaining newsstand UK titles on expending resources and budget on the bit of plastic stuck to the front of the comic, rather than what’s inside the comic. 
Again, don’t want to get too negative here. Free gifts are awesome! Who doesn't like free gifts? And demonstrably, you will sell more issues of a particular comic if you stick a plastic laser gun and a bag of sweets to the front. But those free gifts aren’t really free, are they? They cost money somewhere along the line. And ultimately, if they come at the expense of making actual jokes and stories and awesome comics that engage kids' imaginations – well, yeah, maybe you’ll sell more issues of that particular comic. But I would argue that you are unlikely to make a generation of kids fall in love with reading.

I was giving a talk to teachers and librarians recently on this subject and I put together a few slides as a visual aid. They're abbreviated and simplistic, and no doubt horribly unfair, but hey. It made me laugh?

A (Somewhat Abbreviated) History of British Children's Comics



(Cover images blurred to protect the innocent. And also, because, honestly, I'm not trying to be a COMPLETE ass here. I just needed a punchline?)

So there you go, that's (my biased, arbitrary, possibly communist opinion on) How We Got Here. To turn to the second question:

Does It Matter? 

Yes, it matters.

There we go, that was easy. But seriously, it really does.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, about why we’re all doing this – those of us that make comics, and love comics, and try to spread the word of comics. Is it just because we loved them as kids, and want to see the medium continue? Because if that’s all it is, just a nostalgic self-absorbed desire to recreate our own childhoods, then frankly we should just call the whole thing off and all go home and eat a bag of Skips. It’d be cheaper and just much less hassle all round. But it’s not that. Comics matter, for all the reasons that reading matters. Learning to read makes a tangible, measurable difference to children’s lives and prospects, in terms of economic outcomes and quality of life. And comics are – have been, can be, will be again – a huge part of learning to read. Of reading for pleasure; of coming to love reading; making it not something that is enforced from above, a Discipline That Must Be Mastered, but something so exciting and cool and mind-blowingly awesome that it has to be torn out of kids’ hands when it’s time to go to bed.

And if any part of you is wondering if this is still true, if children still have that response to comics, then let me put your mind to rest right now: they do. They absolutely do. Comics perform a fantastic dual purpose:

  • providing kids with a visual narrative that they can follow and engage with while their verbal literacy skills are still developing, thus encouraging the development of those skills
  • offering unique opportunities for exciting subject matter that can hook kids imaginations, lending itself to strong visuals. Robots! Dinosaurs! Mutant rabbits with laser nunchuks! COMICS.
When kids actually get to see comics, when they are given exciting stories and phenomenal artwork and funny jokes about beavers doing a radioactive poo, they flip out. They dive in with both feet and get lost and fall for comics so hard that it alternately makes me inspired and delighted and, actually, angry.

Angry because I’ve seen, first hand and over and over again, just how much enjoyment and hilarity and genuine learning and TANGIBLE INCREASES IN READING DEVELOPMENT kids get from comics like Corpse Talk, or Dungeon Fun, or Moose Kid, or Star Cat. And because I know, all too well, that those comics are not a part of the lives of the vast majority of children, right now. They’re not in the corner shop, they’re not in big rainy day trunks at school, they’re not in the dentist’s waiting room. They are, to generalise wildly, the province of a privileged few: those with parents who can afford them and have even heard of them in the first place. All of which immediately limits your reach down dramatically to a pretty small circle of ‘in the know’ people. And whilst I love those people to bits and indeed am one of them, I think we can all agree it’s not enough. We need to break past that circle, to explode the art form outwards and back to where it should be; an available, accessible, affordable part of the lives of all children.

I'll be posting more on this subject every day this week, including some actual ideas and concrete proposals on how we actually, y'know, DO that. But first, tomorrow: the BEST way comics can help develop children's literacy, which I haven't even mentioned yet.



  1. I was going to reply on twitter but there's just not enough in 140 characters to say how much I agree with ALL this. I still don't get why people disparage comics and say 'only reading comics' - there is so many complex literacy processes going on when reading a comic that is hard to measure. That's why schools don't use them - it's hard to measure the results of a child's interest, understanding and amount of words read in a comic, whereas it's easier to measure accuracy in a standard text. Also teachers who don't read comics can't talk about them to kids, and there are no Cliffs notes to help them! Completely agree about how many comics there were in the 'olden days' too, I read so many, and have passed it on to my daughters. I don't understand the reluctance of so many people to encourage their children to read through comics, what happens in the transition from reading picture books to text books and why aren't comics used to ease it - I'm even considering studying it as a subject for a PhD, if I wasn't so busy reading! Well said Neill, excellent rant.

  2. Thanks Alix! That's a really good point, that its hard for schools to measure results from using comics, and that that's why they don't. I hadn't thought of that, and it bums me out. What can we do about it?


  3. Get teachers turned onto the benefits of comics and the literacy skills that are developed through reading them. The programmes of study for English ask for children to read widely across a range of fiction and non fiction and to develop comprehension skills in discussion with a teacher - comics are perfect for that as there's so much to discuss! I showed my sister and husband a comic at the weekend, one that our comic group made, and they laughed in all the right places and were really impressed, but the comment that stuck with me was 'There's actually a lot involved in reading a comic isn't there? Its quite complicated to work out what's going on and what's happened in each panel, I'm really having to think!' THAT'S the attitude that needs to be shown to teachers and people in charge of texts in the curriculum. I'll stop the ranting now....