History 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 (Sones, 1944).

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 evidence.

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 "grown up."

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.


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Copyright 2003 Gene Yang