Strengths of Comics in Education

Motivating. By far, the most frequently mentioned asset of comics as an educational tool is its ability to motivate students. In Hutchinson's (1949) experiment with a curriculum built around Puck - the Comic Weekly, 74% of teachers surveyed found comics "helpful for motivation" (p. 244), while 79% claimed comics "increased individual participation" (p. 244). One teacher even complained that comic books made "learning too easy" (Hutchinson, 1949, p. 244). When DC Comics, Thorndike, and Downes introduced their Superman language arts workbook to classrooms, they reported "unusual interest" (Sones, 1944, p.233) among the students, which "presented the annoying difficulty of causing the youngsters to complete a whole week's task in one evening" (Sones, 1944, p. 233).

Haugaard (1973) shares that comics was the only way to motivate her son to read: "The first thing which my oldest boy read because he wanted to was a comic book" (p. 54). She goes on to describe a similar phenomenon in her younger children. Alongi (1974) also testifies to "the magnetic attraction comic books wield for children" (p. 801). For students in Kakalios' (2002) "Science in Comic Books" class, comics provides enough motivation for them to overlook the oversimplification of example problems appropriate for an introductory physics course. Diamond observes that students in her high school art class are consumed by comics-based art projects, despite the many hours such projects usually require (Wax, 2002).

William Marston theorizes that the appeal of the comics medium is woven into the very fabric of its nature.

The potency of the picture story is not a matter of modern theory but of anciently established truth. Before man thought in words, he felt in pictures... It's too bad for us "literary" enthusiasts, but it's the truth nevertheless, pictures tell any story more effectively than words. (Sones, 1944, p. 239)

Children - and if Marston is to be believed, all of humankind - have a natural attraction to comics. By inviting comics into their classrooms, educators can take advantage of the "fantastic motivating power of comic books" (Haugaard, 1973, p. 55).

Visual. Comics, being composed of "pictorial and other images" (McCloud, 1993, p. 9), is a fundamentally visual medium. Brocka (1979) sees this as comics' primary advantage over other literary forms. Pictures and text shoulder the burden of the story together. Versaci (2001) welcomes this "interplay of the written and visual" (p. 62). He feels that comics can "quite literally 'put a human face' on a given subject" (Versaci, 2001, p. 62) resulting in an intimate, emotional connection between his students and characters of a comics story.

In a study comparing comics to text, Sones (1944) found that comics' visual quality increases learning. Sones divided four hundred sixth- through ninth-grade students into two groups, balanced in terms of both school grade and intelligence. To the first group he presented a story in comics, with both pictures and text; to the second, only the text. Afterwards, each group was given a test on the content of the story. One week later, the process was reversed: the first group given the text version and the second group the comics. Both groups were tested again.

In the end, Sones (1944) concluded that "a strong trend in favor of the picture continuity was indicated by the two sets of results" (p. 238). On the first test, the first group scored significantly higher than the second group. On the second test, the second group showed a significantly higher improvement than the first. Sones inferred from this that children in the first group had neared saturation after reading the comics, so were unable to learn much more from the text. Those in the second group did not reach saturation until after they had reread the material in comics. Sones (1944) noted that students of "low and middle intelligence levels" (p. 239) were especially helped by comics' visual quality.

Sones' conclusions foreshadow the trend towards teaching to multiple intelligences among educators today. He writes, "An assumption implied in most school instruction is that all children will read the printed materials with equal effectiveness... The absurdity of this practice is patent" (Sones, 1944, p. 240). Visual learners benefit from visual media. In the struggle to engage students of all learning dispositions, comics can prove to be a formidable tool.

Permanent. Williams (1995) cites comics' "permanent, visual component" (p. 2) as one of his many reasons for using comic books in his ESL class. Film and animation, in contrast to comics, are visual but “time-bound.” Language and actions in film and animation are “fleeting.” The medium, rather than the audience, dictates how quickly the viewing progresses. The same is true of a traditional face-to-face lecture; the speaker has primary control over the speed of the lecture. The text medium, on the other hand, shares comics' "permanent" component but not its "visual." "Visual permanence," then, is unique to comics.

McCloud (1993) describes this quality in another way: "In learning to read comics we all learned to perceive time spatially, for in the world of comics, time and space are one and the same" (p. 100). Time within a comic book progresses only as quickly as the reader moves her eyes across the page. The pace at which information is transmitted is completely determined by the reader. In educational settings, this "visual permanence" firmly places control over the pace of education in the hands (and the eyes) of the student.

Intermediary. Comics can serve as an intermediate step to difficult disciplines and concepts. Many language arts educators have used comics in this manner with tremendous success. Karl Koenke (1981) suggests that comics can lead students towards the discipline of reading, especially those who don't enjoy reading or have a fear of failure. A study at the University of Pittsburgh supported this suggestion, finding comic books useful in remedial reading instruction (Sones, 1944). In Hutchinson's (1949) experiment, many teachers "discovered comic strips to be particularly useful in special classes or for slow learning pupils in regular classes" (p. 240). Haugaard (1973) credits comic books with transforming her reluctant reader son into an avid fan of Jules Verne and Ray Bradbury.

Versaci (2001) takes the intermediary quality of comics one step further. Using comics, Versaci challenges college literature students to consider, evaluate, and question the very concept of a "literary canon." Because comics are rarely considered literature, Versaci can surprise his students with well-written comics dealing with mature themes. Versaci then leads his class in a discussion on literary worth. He has found that discussions on comics are generally livelier than those on classic novels, possibly because of a misguided notion that books in the traditional canon are above question. Through comics, Versaci encourages his students to think critically about the literary worth of books and the formation of the literary canon.

Comics can also scaffold to disciplines and concepts outside of the language arts. For example, Jay Hosler's Sandwalk Adventures, a comic book starring Charles Darwin and a talking follicle mite, introduces readers to evolutionary biology (Eakin, 2002). The syllabi of many history courses already include the aforementioned Maus (Kendricks, 2000). Beyond specific works, the very act of creating comics is an interdisciplinary activity. In addition to reading and writing, comics-based projects can develop drawing, computer, and research skills. Many of the skills used in comics creation can be applied to film-making, illustration, and even Web design (Sturm, 2002).

Popular. American children are steeped in popular culture. While some educators simply ignore this reality, many others struggle to address it adequately. Timothy Morrison, Gregory Bryan, and George Chilcoat (2002) suggest that, by incorporating popular culture into the curriculum, teachers can bridge the separation many students feel between their lives in and out of school. Hutchinson (1949) agrees, stating that "there should be harmony between the child's on-going life activities and his experiences in the school - new learning always is a continuation or expansion of learning already possessed by the learner" (p. 236). In addition, the inclusion of popular media promotes media literacy. It encourages students to "become critical consumers of media messages, having developed the ability through exposure to accurately appraise media content or quality and accuracy" (Morrison, Bryan, & Chilcoat, 2002, p. 758).

Teachers can introduce popular culture into their classrooms easily and effectively through comics. Comic books have been a vital part of American popular culture for the last century. As examples, Emily Wax (2002) points to the Spider-man and Star Wars blockbuster movies, both of which have comic book counterparts. There are also examples with considerably less marketing hype. Versaci (2001) asks English teachers to consider Judd Winick's comic book Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned. Pedro and Me is a touching account of the author's friendship with Pedro Zamora, a young AIDS activist who eventually succumbed to the disease. Many students will recognize Winick and Zamora as cast members of MTV's Real World: San Francisco. Through comic books such as these, teachers can lead their students in a study of "contemporary lifestyles, myths, and values" (Brocka, 1979, p. 31).


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Copyright 2003 Gene Yang