of Comics in Education
In 1933 two employees at the Eastern Color Printing Company inadvertently
gave birth to the modern comic book by collecting a number of popular
newspaper comic strips into a tabloid-sized magazine (Wright, 2001).
Within a decade, their humble creation had spawned a multi-million dollar
industry and an American cultural phenomenon. By the 1940's, an estimated
95% of all 8-14 year olds, and 65% of 15-18 year olds, read comic books
Academia took notice, initiating over a decade of debate, research,
and writing on the educational value of comic books. University of Pittsburgh
professor W. W. D. Sones (1944) reports that between 1935 and 1944,
comics "evoked more than a hundred critical articles in educational
and nonprofessional periodicals" (p. 232). In the early 1940’s,
Sones (1944) himself conducted a series of studies on using comic books
in education. Many of Sones’ contemporaries undertook similar
research. Robert Thorndike and George Hill, for example, analyzed the
vocabulary of words found within comic books (Dorrell, Curtis, &
Rampal, 1995), while Paul Witty led a study examining the reading content
of comic books with 2500 school children (Sones, 1944). Educators also
began designing comics-supported curriculum. Thorndike partnered with
DC Comics and Harold Downes to create a language arts workbook that
starred Superman (Sones, 1944). A few years later, the Curriculum Laboratory
of the University of Pittsburgh and the Comics Workshop of New York
University devised and implemented an experiment using Puck - the
Comic Weekly in hundreds of American classrooms (Hutchinson, 1949).
The educational use of comics was of such importance that the Journal
of Educational Sociology devoted the entirety of 1944's Volume
18, Issue 4 to the topic.
Educators eventually lined up on both sides of the debate. Many, like
Child Study Association of America Director Sidonie Gruenberg, saw comics
as a force to be harnessed for education. Gruenberg (1944) cited numerous
examples of educational comics for a variety of subjects, noting: "There
is hardly a subject that does not lend itself to presentation through
this medium" (p. 213). Others saw comics as a stumbling block to
literacy. Nebraska principal Lucile Rosencrans, for instance, believed
that comics impeded reading comprehension, imagination, and caused eyestrain
(Dorrell, Curtis, & Rampal, 1995). School librarians were especially
vehement in their disapproval of comic books, vilifying comics as an
enemy of other reading (Dorrell, Curtis, & Rampal, 1995).
In the late 1940's those opposed to comics found a champion in Dr.
Fredric Wertham, a New York City psychiatrist who studied juvenile delinquency.
Through a series of lectures and articles, Wertham warned America of
the dangers comic books posed to children and demanded government regulation.
In 1954, his work culminated with The Seduction of the Innocent,
a 400-page war cry accusing comic books of promoting violence, racial
stereotypes, homosexuality, rebelliousness, and illiteracy (Wright,
2001). "Comics [is] death on reading," Wertham proclaimed
(Dorrell, Curtis, & Rampal, 1995, p. 226). Wertham was particularly
harsh towards pro-comics educators, even going so far as to call the
attention given to comics by the Journal of Educational Sociology
"an all-time low in American science" (Wright, 2001, p. 162).
In April 1954, Wertham served as a key witness in an investigation
of the comic book industry by the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate
Juvenile Delinquency. By the time the investigation concluded a month
and a half later, America - and the American educational establishment
- had gotten Wertham's message: comic books were bad for children. Scholarship
on the educational value of comics effectively stopped.
It wasn't until the 1970's that teachers dared to bring comic books
back into their classrooms. Richard W. Campbell was among the innovative
few, integrating comics into a fourth grade reading program (Koenke,
1981). Robert Schoof also found comics useful in the language arts,
particularly in teaching dialect and characterization (Koenke, 1981).
In trade journals, educators Kay Haugaard (1973) and Constance Alongi
(1974) recommended using comic books with reluctant readers, while Bruce
Brocka (1979) enlisted comic books as a defense against a new enemy
to literacy: television.
The legacy of the 1954 investigation, however, still loomed. Many
educators who advocated comics condescended them in the same breath.
Haugaard (1973) described one of her son's comic books as "poorly
written, so poorly that it was really hilarious in the same way that
a high school production of Hamlet can be hilarious" (p. 54). The
title of Brocka's (1979) article assured his readership, "Comic
books: In case you haven't noticed, they've changed.” Most importantly,
education's renewed interest in comics had neither the depth nor the
urgency so apparent in the literature of the 1940's. Both Haugaard and
Brocka, for instance, supported their suggestions with only anecdotal
The tension of education's uneasy new relationship with comics was
somewhat eased in 1992 when Art Spiegelman's Maus became the
first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize (Sturm, 2001). Maus,
Spiegelman's biography of his father's Holocaust experience, was the
most public example of a decades-long movement within the comics community
towards artistically mature, literate work. A flurry of articles appeared
in news publications across the nation proclaiming that comics had finally
Over the next decade, comics began gaining ground in the world of
education as well, slowly finding its way into the course catalogs of
American higher learning institutions. Using comics, English professor
Rocco Versaci (2001) challenged students at Palomar College to critically
examine the very definition of literature. University of Minnesota Physics
professor James Kakalios (2001) received media attention for his phenomenally
popular introductory physics course "Science in Comic Books."
Neil Williams replaced his traditional ESL course books with Calvin
and Hobbes comic books at the American Language Institute of New
York University (1995). With the establishment of both undergraduate
and graduate programs in comics at the Savannah College of Art and Design
(Sturm, 2001), comics finally emerged as a medium worthy of study in
and of itself. Ironically, librarians in the new millennium were among
comics' most vocal supporters, finding comic books useful in luring
teenagers away from their televisions and video games (Bacon, 2002).
Today, educators at all levels are designing new ways of teaching through
comics. In 2002, the New York City Comic Book Museum released C.O.M.I.C.S.,
an eight-lesson curriculum for K-12 students teaching the reading and
creation of comics. Dozens of schools across the nation ordered the
curriculum before it was even complete. The National Association of
Comics Art Educators evangelizes colleges and universities on the importance
of comics-based courses. Their website (www.teachingcomics.org) features
the syllabi of existing courses, instructional units written by cartoonists
and professors, and an online community of comics educators. "There
really is a resurgence in this," high school teacher Jean Diamond
says of comics-based projects, "and it's a fabulous way to get
kids thinking creatively" (Wax, 2002).
Many of today's teachers use comics to encourage the very abilities
some educators in the 1940’s feared it would squelch: reading
and imagination. Ultimately, I must conclude that the American educational
establishment has shied away from comics for incidental, historical
reasons rather than deficiencies within the medium itself. In fact,
upon close examination, several strengths of comics as an educational
tool emerge as themes within the literature.
Go to Strengths of Comics in Education ]