Are Comics Like Reading with Training Wheels?

About a week before the deadline for this column, I had a particularly eventful and stressful day, one that emotionally crystallized what had been an eventful and stressful month. In the evening, I got a chance to unwind with many of my usual choices — making dinner, watching TV, reading.

I had two comics going at the time, Guy Davis’ The Marquis (Dark Horse Books, 2009), which I’m still reading, and a Birds of Prey trade, Metropolis or Dust (Sean McKeever, Nicola Scott, and Doug Hazlewood, DC Comics, 2008). At one point near the end of the Birds of Prey, I realized that, for the first time all day, I had finally managed to detach from my immediate concerns, not by making a stir fry, or watching Alias on DVD, nor by reading prose, but from reading comics.

That realization brought me back to one of themes from last month’s column (“Comic Re-Imagining”, PopMatters 18 September 2009): the nature of the comics reading experience.

‘Comics aren’t just for kids anymore’ is a well-worn media meme, and for the most part the point goes to content, not form. The sentence effectively means to point out that comics are more than superheroes, and can and are used to explore a variety of “serious” subjects – war, political oppression, social injustice, sexuality, family dynamics.

On the other hand, periodic discussions of using comics to encourage ‘reluctant readers’ and as tools for promoting reading to elementary and middle school-aged kids, while currently trending in favor of comic books, seem to rest on the presumption that comics are ‘reading with training wheels’, to use phrase coined by my wife, Anne-Marie. The underlying notion here seems to be that you can ease (trick?) students into becoming ‘real’ readers by giving them pretty pictures to go with the words.

Taken together these arguments, while addressing different readerships from different directions, are complementary: comics are easier reading than prose, tools used to promote basic literacy in school kids, so, naturally, adults need to rationalize reading them by pointing to the importance of a book’s subject, or, at least, to the exploration of adult themes. Both stances presume that reading images, as opposed to written words, is easy, or, maybe even, ‘natural’.

From a very young age, most sighted children are taught to associate pictures with words. This is likely one reason why comics are looked to as a means of bringing lagging or reluctant readers up to grade — it references early childhood strategies for teaching spoken and written language. Most children, however, are not actually taught how to read the picture; that they can do so, is taken for granted.

It is, of course, easy enough to associate a picture of a bear with a bear. The ‘unnatural’ task, and the one that must be actively learned, certainly seems to be associating both with the word ‘bear’. However, despite appearances, there isn’t actually anything natural about associating, or distinguishing, representational images with, or from, the things they represent. That too is learned, but more often than not, is not the subject of formal study, at least not early in life and not as a general part of education in the United States.

I was reminded of this recently when introducing Owly (Andy Runton, Top Shelf Productions) to some friends’ pre-school aged kid. My friends’ child was able to readily recognize a ‘raccoon’, but could not quite say what made the character in question recognizable as a raccoon as opposed to, say, a fox. S/he was clearly getting the information s/he needed from the image, but, while s/he is practiced in associating pictures with words, and is starting to recognize written words as well, s/he, like most children, has not really learned how to associate images with what they represent.

When we use pictures of things as a tool for teaching the meaning of words we generally take for granted that children get that we are using the image as a stand-in for something else (that is, for the ‘real thing’), and it seems safe to assume that, at some point, kids will, indeed, understand the distinction, but most do so is in spite of the fact that they are not actually taught the difference. The unspoken assumption that reading pictures is easy, or comes naturally, is one reason for associating comics with reluctant readers and self-conscious adults.

As is often the case, Scott McCloud is useful here. In chapter two of Understanding Comics (HarperPerennial, 1993), he presents a continuum of strategies for signifying a human face, from photographs to words on a page. Each stage of the continuum requires more work from the reader, with a photograph “instantaneously” prompting recognition and a detailed, written description requiring a higher level of learned “perception” to be understood.

He notes that a drawn face only requires three elements: a circle for the head, two dots for eyes, and a horizontal line for a mouth, and even then, the circle for a head is not entirely necessary. In order to recognize that, or any, arrangement of shapes as a ‘face’ requires an act of interpretation on the part of the reader. The closer you get to a ‘realistic’ image of a face, the easier the interpretation is, but the image must still be read to be understood. In fact, McCloud notes, people have a tendency to see faces where, arguably at least, there are none intended.

The images in a comic are more than just simple substitutes for words; they are complicated texts in and of themselves, subject to multiple interpretations and producing a variety of emotional, visceral, and intellectual responses. One of McCloud’s novel arguments is that the more abstract an image is, that is, the less ‘realistic’ it seems, the more the picture will require active participation from a reader to be understood as intended. At the same time, with human figures in particular, the more abstract, and plastic, an image is, the easier it is for a reader to identify with that figure because they can project themselves onto the character with greater ease than they can with a figure drawn to look more like a real, and therefore different from the reader, person.

And, of course, a comic is not just a book of pictures. Comics is a narrative form, and the images are used to tell a story. They are read, not in isolation, but in relationship and in sequence. More often than not, pictures are married with words in the telling of a story. Reading a comic requires multiple forms of literacy and levels of interpretation. Every movement from word to image and back again so as to create a coherent, narrative whole engages the reader’s brain in distinct ways.

While I have not doubt that many kids take to comics right away, in my experience, handing a comic to a young kid, especially one just learning to read, without showing or explaining how to read it, is likely to produce confusion, no matter how fascinated they might be by individual panels or figures. Cultural attitudes towards comics, the ones that underlie the “comics aren’t just for kids” meme and that see them as reading with training wheels, indicate more about how visual literacy and the reading of images is under-taught and under-valued than they do about the value of comics.

I think that it is the peculiar nature of comics, the way that they ask the reader to interpret multiple layers of text, that made it the perfect medium for taking me away from my preoccupations the other night. This isn’t to suggest that comics are the only thing that could have done this. Given a different set of circumstances, the cooking or the television or the prose novel, or something else altogether, could have taken me away, too.

All forms of media and activities offer immersive opportunities, but none in exactly the same way. For me, that evening, comics provided just the right kind of engagement, not because they are ‘easy’, but because they are challenging.