Comic potential

February 1, 2012 by
Education   No Comments Yet

For most parents, newsagents and supermarkets, indeed anywhere with a stand full of papers and magazines, have become heart-sink shops. For that’s how it feels when your child rushes over, and eschewing First News or National Geographic For Kids, picks up another multi-coloured clash of pages calling itself a comic and named for a popular television character, barely registering the contents in their boundless enthusiasm for whatever piece of plastic land-fill has been attached to the front as a cover mount.

Modern comics seem to bear little resemblance to those much-loved mini-magazines of our youth. Then, we were drawn to lose ourselves in the latest adventures – usually hilarious, but sometimes frightening or sporty or sci-fi – of favourite characters. Now, 21st-century children seem concerned with nothing more than what piece of tat – mostly a practical joke or ‘jewellery’- is being given away, not caring that the new toy is Sellotaped so hard to the comic that the pages usually disintegrate as it is prised from the front cover.  It’s not just financially depressing (although given that each edition costs about £3, pocket money soon gets swallowed up), nor is it the frustration that yet another pointless item of rubbish has somehow sneaked into the home where it will be found painfully under your bare feet every day until it can be sneaked into the bin, but this miserable money-centred horde of titles seems to crush all the joy of comics that many of us recall so well. From Bunty to the Beano, the Dandy to Tiger, most of us had a favourite comic often arriving with the grown-ups’ newspaper on subscription through the letter box, a treat to be savoured after school or shared with a Best Friend. Pages were pored over, back issues treated with reverence, and jokes rehearsed and repeated. For just a few pence a week, our parents bought our silence, and we revelled in the grown-up sensation of having something of our own to read.

Yet, what does today’s child often get? ‘A complete waste of money,’ says cartoonist and author Jasper Bark. ‘These modern commercial comics are just cobbled together, with a cover mount stuck to the front, and no content inside. I gave one to my youngest daughter and she ‘‘read’’ it in five minutes flat. Children don’t even choose them by name; it’s all about the giveaway product.’

Jasper is talking about the reprint led licensed titles which sell in quite large quantities. But newer titles which try to marry new strips with older material such as Ben 10 are equally popular, suggesting it doesn’t have to always be about the free gift. Also ‘older-style’ comics such as 2000AD still exist, and the form is being used to produce scholastic books aimed at teenagers who may be slow readers, or who need help with comprehension – or simply just to get across a difficult social or health message in an engaging non-adult fashion.

Jasper has written for just about every publisher in the British comics industry, from 2000AD to The Beano, and an increasing number of American and international publishers, and his Battle Cries series of graphic novels is used in schools throughout the UK to improve literacy for 12 to 16 year old readers. He points out: ‘Comics are very educational; ideal for high-low readers (older children whose reading age does not match up). Your brain processes visual information with the left hand side of the brain and written or textual information with the right side. Comics which combine pictures and text, use both sides at the same time. In other words, putting text in a speech bubble makes it easier to read. Reading like this disempowers the problem of dyslexia.’

Historically, teachers and parents didn’t agree. Although comic strips have been published in newspapers since the 1890s, in the first half of last century, comics were frowned on as not ‘proper literature’. A few titles survived – Beano and The Dandy, but others such as Topper fell victim to paper shortages in the Second World War. The Seventies saw a move to ‘slicks’ – comics printed on shiny paper, and more teenager tone with the arrival of the Problem page and product placement. No wonder, they weren’t encouraged by parents. The current revival seems to owe its existence to branding – another media to be exploited for characters made famous on children’s TV.

Yet, this particular style of writing (pictures + text) has positive benefits for children, says Professor Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois. She says: ‘A lot of criticism comes from people who think that kids are just looking at the pictures and not putting them together with the words. But you could easily make the same criticism of picture books.’

She adds: ‘If reading is to lead to any meaningful knowledge or comprehension, readers must approach a text with an understanding of the relevant social, linguistic, and cultural conventions. And if you really consider how the pictures and words work together in consonance to tell a story, you can make the case that comics are just as complex as any other kind of literature.’

Children with dyslexia could even be reassured by the appearance of characters such as Moose Mason in Archie Comics and Taki Matsuya, a mutant character from Marvel Comics, who have also been diagnosed with this problem. But perhaps most helpful is Moving the Goalposts – the tale of dyslexia-affected star goalkeeper Sam, who after being named Man of the Match, has to write the match report to read out in assembly – a task which fills him with dread. This thought-provoking look at the effects dyslexia can have on everyday life is written in suitably graphic novel style by Rob Childs (available from Amazon).

Theo Paphites (backer), editor Sam Hewitt and sister Stacey Soloman launch the mag

Sam Hewitt must have happy memories from reading childhood comics. In the middle of the present economic down turn, she is launching bravely a new comic called Sea Urchins, which focuses on the wonders of the deep. ‘I read Bounty and my brothers’ copies of the Beano, and loved the conversations in bubbles. And I was particularly taken by the RSPB’s junior magazine – full of comic strips, puzzles and quizzes.

‘I qualified as a marine scientist, and last year spent 12 months in Madagascar as a volunteer training people to dive. It gave me a lot of time to think and plan, and when I came home I knew I was going to launch Sea Urchins. I’ve tested it of course (often on my six year old brother who gets pleasingly obsessed with it), and hope to inspire other children with nature as I was.’ Sea Urchins is launched in January (four times a year; cover price £2.99).

Anorak, a quarterly comic aimed at seven-12 year olds (£5), also taps into that feel-good factor from the past without feeling remotely dated. Explains editor/founder Cathy Olmedillas: ‘We’re created it totally from the perspective of the child. So Anorak is full of stories often written by children, but illustrated by adults, plus games and places to visit.’

She acknowledges that as the magazine doesn’t carry a cover mount (proudly), it is more likely to get picked up by parents than children, but says readers are then very loyal. ‘We have an open invitation for Little Editors to write and review stuff for us, we’re like a club and the children love being involved.’

Another new title on the market is Strip Magazine: already available in one of the hundred or so specialist comic shops in the UK (such as Forbidden Planet), it hits mainstream news stands next year. An action adventure title, Strip (£2.99) is aimed at the over-eights; and combines traditional comic appearance with modern story telling techniques. Editor John Freeman explains what he thinks the appeal is: ‘For a kid, these magazines have the power to trigger their imagination and really help children to read on their own. But we never dumb down; good comics shouldn’t patronise their readers.’

One of the major challenges to comics is surely the internet – do children even need to buy their own magazine when there is so much to read online? Sam Hewitt says she is creating a website and app which complement Sea Urchins but says: ‘The comic is still the main focus; I wanted something children could hold and encourage them to take away from the PC.’ Cathy Olmedillas agrees: ‘We are printed and proud of it. We have an iphone app with games on it as a way of reaching out to a wider audience but the website for Anorak is aimed at parents rather than children.’ Strip Magazine, as befits its more futuristic content, is probably the most internet-linked, and can be bought as a download from iTunes for iPad (although you don’t get the free poster with that medium).

Where comics traditionally came into their own was the Christmas or Winter annual. The modern comic replicates this through hardback albums or graphic novels which can be found in bookshops such as Waterstones. Jasper Bark admits that on Christmas Day, his daughters still settle down to read their Christmas annuals after lunch just as he did several decades ago. ‘I think they still feel like a treat,’ he admits.

It’s not just the quality of the words that matter: one of the best known authors of graphic novels is, of course, Raymond Briggs. Which art-mad teenager could resist the beautifully drawn illustrations in Fungus the Bogeyman or When the Wind Blows?  British author Martin Handford’s best-selling series Where’s Wally?  may be whizzed through as a bit of light relief, but they’re also examples of Wimmelbilderbuch (which translates from German as ‘teeming picture book’), a distinct kind of picture book, full of abundant images of richly detailed humans, animals and things, derived from the artistic style of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

So can the new comics appeal to both girls and boys? Print media Productions (publishers of Strip Magazine) publishes a hardback series called Mirabilis, Year of Wonders where characters include ‘warrior saints, vegetable monsters and chess-playing robots walking the streets of Edwardian London’. But if that sounds too masculine, other titles include Iron Moon – one of an adventure series based around the exploits of Charlotte Corday, a lieutenant in the Royal Space Navy, who would surely appeal to adventurous teenage girls. And Jasper Bark points out that in Japan, 80 per cent of the audience is female thanks to the rise in popularity of Manga (comics read by all ages with topics including action-adventure, romance, sports and games, historical drama, comedy, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, horror, and even business/commerce; the manga market is worth about US$3.6 billion). For girls who eschew the X Factor and teen romance magazines and particularly for self-confessed Tomboys, comic books could offer a new world of imagination and reading matter.

Jasper points out too that comics are ideal for handling difficult topics when talking to adolescents. But they’re also excellent for foreign language learning (you could pick up French or German comics easily when you’re skiing, for example).  ‘If you can get children reading and laughing at the same time,’ he says, ‘learning becomes fun.’ Anyone whose home has been overtaken by Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories television series, which uses comic strip in some of its accompanying books, will know how powerful this type of format can be for teaching Egyptian burial practices too.

Lastly, if your own child is truly captivated by the happy marriage of words and pictures, Dundee University launched a Comic Studies degree course this year – so there may even be a future in their passion too.

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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