I didn’t get my guest-writer for this posting, but he did produce an audio I’ll be posting on Saturday, since it’s Saturday Night Showcase length. Otherwise let’s put this week’s chapter to bed.
The topic here is comics as a form of literature and it’s alleged harm to literacy. Reading a comic isn’t worse than reading a book, as Doctor Wertham claims in this chapter. Rather comics have their own literacy. As I’ve said, comics isn’t exclusively a visual medium as we use the term. It’s a combination of reading and looking at pictures. If his reading-impared patients are using it because they don’t like to read or are hiding the fact that they can’t, it isn’t the fault of the comic. In this last section, Wertham actually goes over what he considers the problem with comics and their impact on literacy. As a comic creator as well as reader I instantly see the flaws, and considering his research thus far into comics is already up for debate it’s less coming down on him for his anti-comic bias as much as an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the comic medium compared to other media of the time and today.
As always please read his comments yourself for full context. Sorry there aren’t more pictures. 😛
Comic books harm the development of the reading process from the lowest level of the most elementary hygiene of vision to the highest level of learning to appreciate how to read a good literary book. Print is easy to read when the paper background is light and the printing a good contrasting black. Yet most comics are smudgily printed on pulp paper. The printing is crowded in balloons with irregular lines. Any adult can check on the eyestrain involved by reading a few comic books himself. We can produce the most beautifully printed books and pamphlets; every morning my mail has advertising matter expertly designed and handsomely printed on expensive paper. Yet to our children we give the crudest and most ill-designed products.
I have never held a comic from the 1950s, just reprints and online scans (most of them are in public domain) that I can zoom in and out of at will. I can’t really speak to the quality of the paper. I have noticed that comics from this period and earlier did have a number of problems. There were typos (or the hand-written equivalent–I tried an experiment once using a typewriter to letter a comic…it failed miserably) or shortened versions of words to fit them onto the page. (For example, “thru” for “through”, I’m betting my spell-check is thinking of “drive thru”.)
The things is comics were still new and publishers were seeing these as cheap ways to make money. The printing process for comics was still being ironed out, and methods change as time goes on. Have you ever looked at an old comic and seen blue dots all over the place? That was part of the printing process, not the coloring process. Today we have better quality paper but even when I was a kid comics had decent paper and didn’t suffer some of the problems he mentions. The solution is improving the art of printing and lettering comics. Give it time, doctor. Give it time.
Reading the comic-book text is often difficult. For example, the reading material in the huge present crop of horror comics is hard to make out even for the average adult reader. But all the emotional emphasis of comics is on the pictures, and that is where they do the most harm to reading. The discrepancy between the easy appeal of the pictures and the difficulty of reading the text is too great to encourage anyone to try to follow what the characters are supposed to be saying.
Even now I do see more emphasis on the art and coloring side of comics. The show I mentioned earlier this week, Strip Panel Naked, talks more to artists and colorists (which should be considered artists, but that usually refers to pencilers and inkers) than it does letterers. Lettering is an art form and comics are a merger of different arts (writing, drawing, coloring, and lettering), all of which need to work in harmony to produce a good comic panel. The writer must be aware of how much work they’re giving the art team and the letterer. The artists need to make room for the lettering while the writer needs to be careful how much dialog and sound effects he’s asking to cram in there. The colorist would be the easiest job since he or she is playing with what’s left, but considering how much work goes into color theory and other aspects of coloring I’m just getting a handle on (I think I’m finally getting a hand on shading) it’s certainly not easy. They just have to compliment what’s there while the others fight each other to make a good flow and to put their stamp on the page.
(I’m guessing anyway. I’ve never collaborated with anyone beyond a few hand-drawn comics my friend Sean and I did for awhile. Which amounts to two Doctor Who fancomics I don’t think either of us are willing to show off if I even remember where they are.)
Even back then, however, you can see the essence of how a comic works. As we saw earlier this week even Wertham has some idea about that.
An important area where comic books do specific harm is the acquisition of fluent left-to-right eye movements, which is so indispensable for good reading. The eyes have to form the habit of going from left to right on the printed line, then returning quickly to the left at a point slightly lower. Reversal tendencies and confusions are common among children at the age of six. As better reading habits are acquired, including the all-important left-to-right movements, reversals and other errors gradually diminish and may automatically disappear. It is different with the comic-book reader who acquires the habit of reading irregular bits of printing here and there in balloons instead of complete lines from left to right.
But his assumption is that you can’t learn how to read a comic, which requires different skills than reading a book. And yet similar skills to reading a repair manual or putting together a swing set from the store. He’d probably prefer the really early comics where captions did most of the storytelling to the point that they were more like illustrated books than comics. (And I say that as a defender of caption boxes. It’s also an art form.) Rather than learn how to read a comic, Wertham is perfectly happy with his books and demands you are, too.
Instead Wertham just goes right into complaining about “picture reading”. He mentioned it before but now he goes into further detail of what it is and how it’s a bad idea. He notes that even kids who can read are “seduced” into picture reading, but maybe they just know how to read a comic, which doesn’t get in the way of reading their textbooks or something for fun.
Picture reading consists in gazing at the successive pictures of the comic book with a minimal reading of printed letters. Children may read the title, or occasionally an exclamation when the picture is particularly violent or sexually intriguing. This kind of picture reading is not actually a form of reading, nor is it a pre-stage of real reading. It is an evasion of reading and almost its opposite. Habitual picture readers are severely handicapped in the task of becoming readers of books later, for the habit of picture reading interferes with the acquisition of well-developed reading habits.
And once again I and most likely you are evidence to the contrary. I love books. I love comics. I like picture books and illustrated books. I read fliers, instruction manuals, articles online–in fact my only problem with online reading is that if it’s endless scrolling my eyes get bored, which is why I prefer multiple pages or at least something to break the text wall, which is why I put images into the articles where needed and possible. I’m happy the Kindle app uses page scrolling or that book I’ve been trying to finish would be a bigger chore.
Learning how to read a comic did not damage my ability to read a magazine or a book. Maybe the creators of the time figured out how to draw the eye between the art, dialog, and sound effects so that I could learn it easier. I have noticed at times this could be rocky, especially when the caption boxes were placed wrong. There was a time when the bottom of the panel was where they put it, although it would be explaining an action that happened before the rest of the panel, like someone arriving at so-and-so’s place. Like I said, caption boxes are an art letters need to work on and artists need to give proper space for, while writers are careful how much dialog is in there in the first place.
Comic creators had to learn that. They were still getting used to comic strips. Remember how the dialog in Teen-Age Dope Slaves often repeated itself as if you hadn’t just seen it two panels ago but two days ago, as is the case in a newspaper strip. It would be one thing if Wertham was trying to demonstrate things comic companies needed to improve on, although we’ve already seen his lack of media savvy. However, outside of his lament that “(w)e can produce the most beautifully printed books and pamphlets…(y)et to our children we give the crudest and most ill-designed products” he’s not trying to improve comics so that they can be a gateway to further reading, like short stories or easy reader books. He wants them off comics completely, even the cute animal stories he was using to defend himself earlier.
Then we go back to Wertham’s “Hookey Club”, the group of truants who basically analyze themselves with Dr. Wertham’s guidance. We get the story of 15-year-old Jimmy, with a reading grade of 2.4 and lamenting he can’t quit the boring old school to get a job until he’s sixteen. He’s been put back a few times and just wants out.
Another Hookey Club member: “What was your last trouble in school?”
Jimmy: “I know I can’t read. That’s why I don’t like school.” A third Hookey Club member gave him a schoolbook and asked him to read a few sentences. Jimmy, reading aloud, “…” He could not read a single simple sentence without making a mistake.
A girl in the group asked him, “Do you read comic books?”
Jimmy: “I don’t read comics. I just look at the pictures – Crime Does Not Pay, True Detective, Superman. I get the story by just looking at the pictures. Once in a while, when a good part comes, I read what I can, but the words I don’t know I just pass over. When it is a short story and it looks interesting – when it is bad and they shoot each other – and when they get the woman – then I try to read it.”
But why can’t Jimmy read? Wertham blames the comics, but I first learned words like “invulnerable” or Lord Acton’s misquoted line about power corrupting in the pages of Superman stories. I’ve had kids tell me I use big words sometimes when I was in late middle and early high school. I still use them today. And quite a few of those big words came from comics, from normal dialog between characters. I’ve seen comic dialog that feels more like real people talking than some books, and vice versa. Despite Wertham’s claims, comics did help me to read and today we have a better understanding as to how to write comics, and we’ve created comics just to teach proper reading and grammar skills, as well as science and history (from historic fiction to biographical comics), and even how to make better comics.
Schoolteachers and college authorities are becoming aware of increasing reading difficulties. Colleges have been forced to make reading classes available to their freshmen. Universities have instituted special courses which are actually nothing but remedial-reading courses, despite their high-sounding titles: “Communications,” etc.
We have the same complaints today, only now how reading is taught is being called into question. New ways are being developed, while some are still into the “slam all of the data into their brains and never stop teaching them no matter what” school, which means they don’t learn how to comprehend and utilize that information in their lives.
This low-grade literacy shows also in the fact that many people say they have no time to read a book, instead of giving the real reason: that they cannot read one.
I’m calling this the biggest bull statement of the chapter, and that’s saying something. Many people don’t have time to read a book. I created Chapter By Chapter to help me make time in between article writing, dealing with life issues good and bad, working on videos and comics, and various other projects, including the clutter maintenance project. I have someone looking to buy those Marvel Power Ranger comics and I haven’t had a chance to look up the pricing because I’ve been responding to Wertham’s nonsense and spending time with my family.
Some people can read but choose not to, like my dad, or are so busy with work and family that they don’t have a few minutes to relax with television, much less something more demanding of their attention like reading. Reading prose stories and articles requires the reader to form images in their minds, which is difficult if you’re tired. In the case of a news story you have learn to read between the lines to see how much you believe what is written (reporter bias or information the reporter may not have at the time), or to pay attention to make sure you understand what is being told to you even if it’s 100% truthful and accurate. If you’re going to read a book right you need to be able to focus on the descriptions and what’s being said, especially in a mystery story. And plenty of jobs are more demanding of time and physical/mental energy than a head shrink.
An article published by a member of the Board of Experts of the Superman publisher is based on elaborate word-counts and statistics. It comes to the conclusion that comic books “provide a substantial amount of reading experience” and “may have real value for the educator.” What he describes as a “reading experience” is in fact mostly a non-reading experience. It evidently has not occurred to this Superman expert that most children do not read the many words which he has counted.
Most of the children you talk to anyway. How many non-troubled kids do you talk to versus the ones you do? I bet if the odds were blood pressure you’d be in the ICU. What astounds me is how easily the problem is solved by simply teaching kids how to read comics better like they do books. Even in these days there were fewer words to follow, people talked like people around them (especially the cities, since so many publishers and comics were either based in New York City, or featured characters from the city) which meant a starting point to pronounce words, and a visual representation of those words like a next generation flash card. (Remember flash cards, older readers? Do teachers still use those on kids?)
And of course, to use Wertham’s example in the next section we’ve already discussed to death, it’s better to actually read Robinson Crusoe than read the comic adaptation. This is also true for Cliff’s Notes and movies, but that isn’t brought up. The hope as I see it is that when the kids outgrow comics (they used to do that) they will come across the book and want to read the full version instead of the comic highlights. At the very least they will be able to understand certain references like a “man Friday” (or “girl Friday”).
There’s a part about a library that tried to use Superman to promote books (an idea by National Publications, the future DC Comics) but the kids asking for Superman stories. Easy solution? Take the hint and create normal Superman books. I have one, and a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style book (different branding) in which Superman takes one of a few different paths. I even reviewed it for The Clutter Reports. Now there is a good way to interest kids in books: make it a game! It may make them hungry for more, and this is a strategy that has worked, even if Wertham wasn’t seeing it in 1954.
A fourteen-year-old boy in the eighth year at school, with a second-grade reading level, says that he has read the “classics” version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “It is called The Mad Doctor. He makes medicine. He drinks it and turns into a beast. He kills a little girl. The cops chase him. Then he changes into a man. He comes to a famous home and falls in love with a girl. He keeps changing. Finally he gets shot. While dying he changes back to a human being. I like when he comes to the little girl and hits her with a cane.
You’d think a 14-year-old would get past seeing little girls hurt. At any rate, that’s basically the story. Another role model I guess, but if they read the book they wouldn’t like him as much? No, he’s just as evil in both versions.
Comic-book writing is also extremely poor in style and language. It is no help to the child to learn such barbaric neologisms as ‘suspenstories’ (the name of an “authorized” comic book). And the editorial comments are no better than the story text; e.g., this “cosmic correspondence”:
“Greetings, humanoids! Drag over a cyclotron and crawl in! (If we’da known you were coming, we’da baked an isotope!)’,
The first is the same crap we get of marketing departments who like to create buzzwords. The second adds to the fictional reality (by using random science words, but how is that different from today?) because science fiction often involves people not raised on Earth culture and fans take notice of such things. (It’s one of the reasons I prefer Classic Galactica over the new series.) But I think the point’s been made here and we’re out of space again. The Friday Night Fights are cancelled for this week, so tomorrow let’s talk about something besides Wertham that brings a few readers to visit. The He-Man comic strips! And then we’ll hear what someone who actually knows the art of making and reading comics, namely BW Virtual Mentor Jerzy Drozd. As a comic creating teacher and podcaster I really wanted his thoughts on that. So we’ll take a He-Break before putting the final nail in this chapter’s coffin. Before starting the next one boy howdy what fun.