Great Reading Begins With Pictures
Story-telling is as ancient as humanity and may define what it means to be human. Mangas, comics, and graphic novels should be embraced in classroom reading from the earliest grades on. They are not modern corruptions of the literary tradition. In fact, they may be the truest embodiments of humanity’s most authentic literary tradition.
Consider the case of the Bayeux embroidery, which tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in the year 1066. Lovers of comic books and graphic novels would recognize their favorite form of literature at once in the Bayeux embroidery: Seventy action-filled scenes, many of them with tituli, which is the Latin name for captions.
But this tapestry is hardly the first graphic novel. “The world’s first comic book, LASCAUX, was published in France 17,000 years ago. It was a single edition, printed on limestone, and arranged in a pair of strips over 128-feet long,” says Chris Gavaler, author of the book Superhero Comics (published by Bloomsbury Academic). The Lascaux cave paintings are a story told in a series of sequential images, complete with action scenes where bison and other animals ‘move’ across the cave through successive action images. It’s an amazing and beautiful work of art, but it was created to tell a story, not as a decoration.
The British Museum displays an object, roughly rectangular, decorated in gold and bright colors on black, called the Standard of Ur. Excavated from an ancient cemetery in Iraq, it dates back to about 2600 BCE (4,621 years ago. It tells the story of a royal feast. The layout is the same as we might use today: A series of strips reading side to side, one above the other. The only difference really is that rather than using ink, it’s executed in laps lazuli and other fine inlays. With chariots, processions, a musician entertaining guests with a lyre, it uses every inch of its four sides to tell the story.
Then there is the Rembrandt fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Most descriptions of it fail to highlight the fact that it’s not just a great painting but actually the largest known sequential story in picture form.
The bas relief carvings on the Parthenon, the hieroglyphs and art in ancient Egyptian tombs, the decorations wrapped around ancient Green vases—there are thousands of examples of visual story-telling from ancient times. What we don’t have preserved for us is the verbal story-telling that must have been equally common: Elders holding their audiences spellbound around the fire and roving minstrels and musicians carrying important stories with them.
Ancient peoples are estimated to have had what we conventionally think of as low literacy rates—maybe ten to fifteen percent of people were fluent in their civilizations’ written scripts. Does this mean they were illiterate? No! Most stories were told either in the oral tradition or in ancient versions of graphic novels, mangas, and comic books.
Michael Cook’s dissertation for his Ph.D. from Clemson University addresses the question, does reading Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Cask of Amontillado, in graphic novel form help high school students become more literate? (Cook is currently an English professor at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama.) In a series of classroom experiments, he compared test results of students who read the story in original form against those who read the graphic novel by Erica Jang and Jason Strutz. Despite teachers’ misgivings, students who read the graphic novel performed as well or better on tests.
A similar finding is reported for grades five through eight in How Comic Books and Graphic Novels Can Help Language Learners (MinneTESOL Journal, 2018): “When students read the graphic novel chapter, they displayed increased scores in both reading comprehension and in memory recall assessments.” (MinneTESLOL stands for Minnesota Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. The article is by Stephen Meuer, an English Language instructor from West Saint Paul.)
As Jennifer Vecchiarelli explains in her blog, 5 Ways Comic Books Can Improve Literacy Skills, “Comic books deliver small amounts of text on each page that act as stepping stones to longer and more complex texts.”
Here is an example of how the stepping stone effect works from teacher Jennifer Marshall, from Kennewick, Washington (source: literacy worldwide.org blog, The Power of Comics): “The student who helped me realize the power of comics was a seventh-grader who very loudly and proudly would announce that he had never read a novel. He …had just watched an anime (Japanese cartoon) called Bleach, which is based on a manga of 74 books. This student, who had never finished a book…read all 74 books within a couple of months, found another similar series, and started those. All in all, he read 184 books that year. He had transformed from a student who refused to read to one who sought out his own reading material. Comics was the tool that engaged him and drove him to practice his reading, and that practice is what improved his reading skills.”
As a writer who started out as a dyslexic whose teachers said he’d never make it to college, I think of writing and reading as two sides of the same literacy coin. Gaining reading skills through illustrated stories can help with literacy, but can the comic form also teach writing skills? A study by Adam Johnson found comic-style writing assignments “improved writing skills in the areas of sequencing, plot, and character development.” (The Use of Graphic Novels to Support Struggling Fifth Grade Student Story Writing, dissertation, St. John Fisher College.)
You’ve perhaps noticed that I’ve cited dissertations more than one usually does. That’s reflective of the newness of the research. Comic-style writing is not included in earlier studies of literacy, except a highly negative perspective. In earlier literature, you find comics characterized as distractions from ‘real’ reading and, even more ominous, as causes of dyslexia and other reading problems. This tells us about the researchers’ confirmation bias and tendency to conflate correlation with causation, not about the actual effects of comics on young readers. But the existence of decades of authoritative warnings about the dangers of comics helped cement negative attitudes among teachers, librarians, and parents. Even today, many librarians and teachers tell kids that they shouldn’t read graphic novels, and comics don’t count toward reading goals.
Stergios Botzakis, Rachelle Savitz, and David E. Low reach the following conclusion in their chapter, Adolescents Reading Graphic Novels and Comics from the book, What We Know from Research, in Adolescent Literacies, A Handbook of Practice-based Research :
“The images and limited amount of text have long painted comics as inferior or as simple texts that limit opportunities for students to read… In particular, the images were said to distract readers from tracking text, and overall time spent reading comics detracted from the time that could be spent reading materials that could enrich students' reading skills.”
What we now know based on recent research is that “When students read visual narratives, the activity in the brain is similar to how readers comprehend text-based sentences.” (Leslie Morrison, CTD Summer Leapfrog Coordinator, The Research Behind Graphic Novels and Young Learners, Northwestern Center for Talent Development)
In other words, even though it has pictures, it’s still reading. And reading is good!
We also know that reading fluency is a grave challenge for many students and that schools aren’t doing a great job of bringing everyone along on the journey to true literacy. This is the biggest challenge to educating our nation’s youth because kids who aren’t fluent readers begin to fall behind in all subjects and get left behind in middle or high school.
What if our prejudices against our most ancient form of writing, the graphic novel or comic strip, are at the very root of this literacy crisis? I’m inclined to think it really is that simple. What we need to do is to get all students reading early and often, using comics, manga, graphic novels, and graphic retellings of classics like those of Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe.
Once they get going, the love of reading will kick in and they will progress to more text-heavy forms of reading.
As someone who was held back in third grade and struggled with dyslexia, I know just how important the intrinsic love of reading is. It eventually got me up to and then above grade level, into a top college, through a challenging grad school program, and into a fun writing career. I did not succeed because someone figured out how to ‘cure’ dyslexia, but simply because I got turned on by reading.
The idea that outmoded prejudices against graphic story-telling might prevent anyone else from getting turned on by reading is anathema to me. Let’s instead embrace the graphic novel, comic, and manga—and the Sistine Chapel, the Standard of Ur, the Parthenon friezes, the Bayeux embroidery, and the Lascaux cave paintings. These are all brilliant ways of engaging readers in the art and power of great storytelling.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available now at Amazon.