Comics

If You Can Read This, You’re Literate: An Interview with Filmmaker Todd Kent

Kevin M. Brettauer

After five decades of self-censorship stemming primarily from the Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, can comics reassert its rightful role in promoting literacy during childhood? Wertham had a few valid points, contends filmmaker Todd Kent.

Growing up can be the hardest thing in the world. Schools are well known as microcosms of the generations they train, odd, dwarf-like foreshadowing of the years to come, a shadowplay of the future with tiny puppets. Like in the real world, things are tough, and you need certain skillsets to survive. Some individuals are more powerful than others and are often the ones who pull the strings. The intellectuals are often laughed at by the powerful elite, unless somehow they walk the line between those two worlds. Those who look different, act in a manner dissimilar to the rest of the populace or who are just plain unliked are made to feel unwanted and unloved.

Growing up, like most kids of my generation did, in an environment not dissimilar from this one, I, of course, gravitated towards comic books. Stories of superheroes writing wrongs, saving the day and dealing with the day-to-day issues of their lives, sometimes even being hated by the people who owe them their lives -- they spoke to me.

The only problem was that, while I could read parts of them, I couldn’t exactly read them well.

Tutored, as I was, with the works of Dr. Seuss and children’s books like Go Dog Go, issues of Detective Comics and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were also learning tools for me, as was Larry Hama’s Wolverine #62, which I read and re-read, along with those children’s books, so many times once I had finally completed my journey towards literacy.

It was with all this in mind that I sat down to interview Todd Kent, a documentary producer and director whose independent film Comic Book Literacy made waves earlier this year at Comic Con International in San Diego. The film returned for a screening in the same city on October 12th at Lestat’s Coffee Shop.

A longtime comics fan, Kent had desired for some time to combine his love of comics with his work as a documentarian. “From time to time”, he says, “I had heard various stories of comics being used to teach and I was even more aware of the undeserved stigma that the medium had carried.” He knew from the get-go that should he do “a film about comics that [he] would want to portray them in a positive way”.

The origins of the film occurred when Kent gave his wife, a public school teacher, a few of his old comic books for her students’ reading pleasure. “Their response [to] them was dynamic,” Kent reflects. “The kids were so excited they were actually fighting over them! In a country struggling to improve childhood literacy rates, these kids were actually fighting over reading material!”

Kent was acutely aware that when most people “hear ‘comics’ [that they] get a mental picture of Adam West karate chopping Otto Preminger on a tilted, multicolored sound stage so vibrant that it would make Andy Warhol’s eyeball’s [sic] explode”, which, he notes “is a far cry from A Contract With God or Maus.” But after wife’s classroom experience, Kent had finally found the impetus to push him towards “research[ing] comics and their role in education”, thus beginning the process towards creating the film.

Kent notes that since comics have long had “the misfortune of constantly being compared to prose as if they were the same type of medium” or a “lesser” derivative, “they get labeled as ‘easy’.” To outsiders, “it seems to be ‘easier’ to read a comic than a prose novel,” although he’s quick to note that any provocative and well-constructed “novel is also ‘easy’ to read, which it should be because reading is supposed to be enjoyable”. Kent maintains they are very clearly two different vehicles in the storytelling world: “apples and oranges, as it were”.

Comparing the length of a time it takes to read a novel to the potentially brief length of time it takes to gaze upon an oil painting, he quite rightly states that “No one would then say that an oil painting has less worth than a novel because it’s ‘easier’ to take in, would they?”

Clearly not. In that way, they are not comparable. As two different forms of art, they have their own, internal standards by which they should be judged. And, Kent says, “the same goes for comics. You don’t ‘consume’ a comic book the same way you ‘consume’ a novel…or an oil painting or a song or a poem.”

Another issue with widespread acceptance of comics in today’s culture is the fact that “A lot of people just can’t (or won’t) make the link to comics without the presence of capes and tights,” leaving most moviegoers unaware of the printed origins of successful films like A History of Violence, Ghost World, Road to Perdition and, possibly, this month’s Bruce Willis vehicle Red. “This comes from ignorance of the medium more than anything else,” Kent believes. “Most people are just completely unaware that non-superhero stories are being told in” comics. This isn’t a new phenomenon, however, or even one linked solely to comics-based material, noting the Judy Garland-headlining musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz as an example.

“There are some die hard Oz fans out there whose concept of the franchise begins and ends with the 1939 film. They absolutely adore the characters and the story but wouldn’t even consider reading the Baum books (even though they would probably really enjoy them).” Calling the phenomenon “selective recognition”, Kent cites it as “a quirk of a fandom” that re-enforces the ages-old axiom that “fans…stay in their comfort zones”, sometimes too often for their own good. Kent “urge[s] readers to leave their comic book comfort zone and try a few non-superhero titles. There’s plenty of good stuff out there.”

On the topic of kid-friendly comics, Kent makes a point, a silent cry that many have ignored for years. “We don’t have to demand” all-ages material. “We just need to start buying it.” Though he says that series like DC’s Cartoon Network books and Johnny DC line, as well as the various Marvel Adventures books, “are frequently canceled…due to low sales”, fans of all-ages material need to “put [their] money where [their] mouth is and buy these titles” if you want them to continue to exist. If they’re successful, they will serve up more and more, in a similar manner, he points out, to constant best-sellers like DC’s hit Crisis events and major crossover tie-in mini-series, like those that revolved around the recent Blackest Night event.

The cross-generational appeal of the Smurfs...

These books, Kent rightly claims, are created because they sell, and this is a phenomenon, believe it or not, that ties in to kids’ purchasing of comics on their parents dime. “Parents should be actively involved and be aware of what it is their kids are reading. Again, it comes down to voting with your wallet. If you don’t want your kids to read about Green Arrow splitting a villain’s head open with an arrow (as in the climax of the recent Justice League: Cry for Justice) then don’t buy that book for your kids. You can make all the demands you want to DC and Marvel but they are going to keep publishing ultra-shock stories until ultra-shock stories stop selling.”

The comics form has long been persecuted by “professionals” for various reasons, most recently in political smear campaigns and by so-called religious organizations. “To be honest,” Kent laments, “I tried very hard to find an ‘anti-comics’ person who could have been interviewed on camera but didn’t have any luck.”

Well, hypothetically, what if Fredric Wertham, notorious psychiatrist and author of the controversial Seduction of the Innocent, were alive today? How would that have changed his approach to the film?

“I would have definitely tried to interview him”, the filmmaker says before delving into potential controversy. “Regarding Wertham, the conclusion I’ve come to (and the general consensus of the comics historians appearing in the film) is that he was more misguided than malevolent. I think he truly believed he was doing good but just didn’t research his topic from enough angles.”

...and Classics Illustrated

Wertham, who believed characters like Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman were “indoctrinating” young children into lives of homosexuality, “had few valid points” according to Kent. One of the more “shock and awe” publishers at the time, EC Comics, had a large catalog of horror, crime and war comics that Kent refers to as “pretty hardcore”, going on to say that “maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to discourage young kids from reading” some of those series, but that Wertham would have been smarter “to encourage those kids to pick up Captain Marvel or Archie instead of waging war against an entire medium.”

Noting that the good doctor’s tactics and beliefs were “hardly original,” he compares Wertham’s crusade against comics to some current events mentioned in Comic Book Literacy. One-time Transformers writer and Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men editor “Jim Salicrup pointed put in the film [that] whatever is popular with kids (whether it’s Harry Potter, rap music or texting) is usually targeted at some point. The sky is always falling.”

Jim Salicrup

Though comics do occasionally take the proverbial mickey bliss from pop culture, almost as often as Trekkies do, Kent believes that “over the last several years the stigma has significantly lessened. The whole ‘geek chic’ phenomenon, while often annoying and condescending, has helped to bring comics more into the mainstream.” He notes that while working on Comic Book Literacy, he “met several librarians and educators that were excited about using comics” with their work, “but there’s still a long way to go. I think it’s going to happen a little at a time. Slowly but surely comics will become accepted as literature (or at least having the potential to be literature). The next step would be to convince the comics reading community that the medium is capable of more than just superhero stories”, having earlier noted that such unique comics as Love and Rockets often go ignored by the tights-and-flights set.

When asked why literacy is the personal crusade of so many comics professionals, like Salicrup and Zatanna writer Paul Dini, Kent states that their “enthusiasm [for] using comics to promote literacy” is born in the fact that, at least partially, many modern comics creators learned to read from the comics page. “Almost every comics professional we interviewed for the film had anecdotes about how comics helped them learn to read or helped them develop” a love for it.

In that regard, Kent isn’t one to beat around the bush when it comes to recommending comics for the young. “I’m always quick to point out that Archie Comics has quietly been publishing quality all ages content for decades. They have had a fair amount of crossover success in other mediums (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Josie & the Pussycats, etc.) and are one of the few companies in the industry that” offer a significant amount of material for what Kent refers to as “an often neglected female readership,” noting that the Archie, as a company, “continue[s] to thrive in a dying industry by adapting when necessary and by being keenly aware of their target demographic”.

“I mentioned Jim Salicrup earlier”, he continues, “and another great example is the work he is doing at Papercutz. They are continually modernizing (in a good way) proven properties and introducing them to a new generation”, citing such cross-generational childhood luminaries as Nancy Drew and the Smurfs, as well as Classics Illustrated. “There is quality [all-ages] content out there,” he says. “You just have to look for it.”

Though Kent, for various reasons, has “always had a difficult time with the concept of role models” in real life, he finds it “much easier to find” them in fiction. “Superman has all the power in the world but he consistently uses that power to help people. He does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. As far as choosing role models, it doesn’t get any easier than that.”

The filmmaker continues, thoughtfully, to reflect on the Last Son of Krypton. “It’s important, though, to keep in mind that the ideals Superman personifies have been kept alive and intact for decades by regular, flawed people” and that “it’s almost as if we know we’d never be cable of such purity of intention or consistent character ourselves but if we can create that idea and keep it alive (and give it blue tights and a red cape) then at the very least we won’t forget what a role model should be.”

What a wonderful world that it could be, then, to make those strengths real and those flaws the fiction, so that a young, bullied kid, who learned to read thanks to Wolverine, Batman and four oversized turtles, could instead not identify with the persecuted heroes of the X-Men, but instead identify with his classmates, for their youthful interactions will invariably reach out into the adult world, changing it for their own children.

And maybe, just maybe, this is a world where comics are accepted as literature, and all children will be able to learn to read, and read well.

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