While on American shores comic books seems destined to always be fighting the perception of a less sophisticated form of literature, at least one recent academic study reports that comics hold no inherent disadvantage against traditional prose.
Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois and expert in children’s literature, says that comics are indeed just as sophisticated as other forms of literature, and children benefit from reading them at least as much as they do from reading other types of books.
“A lot of the criticism of comics and comic books come from people who think that kids are just looking at the pictures and not putting them together with the words,” Tilley said. “Some kids, yes. But you could easily make some of the same criticisms of picture books – that kids are just looking at pictures, and not at the words.”
Although schools have long embraced picture books as appropriate children’s literature, many adults – even teachers and librarians who willingly add comics to their collections – are too quick to dismiss the suitability of comics as texts for young readers, Tilley said.
“Any book can be good and any book can be bad, to some extent,” she said. “It’s up to the reader’s personality and intellect. As a whole, comics are just another medium, another genre.”
Responding to long-held criticism that reading comics is a "simplified" version of reading that doesn’t approach the complexity of “real” books, with their dense columns of words and relative lack of pictures., Tilley argues that reading any work successfully, including comics, requires more than just assimilating text.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Tilley goes on to argue that some of the condescension toward comics as a medium may come from the "jejune connotations" that the name itself evokes.
“The term ‘comic’ is somewhat pejorative and tends to denote the child-like and ephemeral, and it brings to mind the Sunday funnies that you used to line your birdcage,” she said.
The term “graphic novel” is often used to try to elevate the perception of the medium, but Tilley argues that some creators, including Pulitzer-Prize winner Art Spiegelman ("Maus"), hate the term.
“They feel it’s just a dressed up euphemism for comics,” she said.
Tilley traces the long-held perception back to the early 1900's when comics primary venue was newspaper strips, and was further cemented in the '30's when he first comic books were published featuring collections of the strips.
“They claimed the texts weren’t good texts because they used slang, there were misspellings, they used colloquialisms and that the pictures were of questionable merit,” Tilley says.
That ironic duality of the comic book industry – perceived as kid's medium, but dominated by sales to adults – was solidified in 1955, when sustained outcry over the suitability of comics as children’s reading materials, the comics industry instituted a restrictive editorial code. Soon thereafter, juvenile readership plummeted.
“Between 1955 and the last 10 years, it became very much an adult medium,” Tilley said. “Part of that was because the comics code watered down what could be sold in drugstores, and also because they were slowly getting out of the affordable price range for kids. Comic books became incredibly tame, and the more sophisticated comics were direct sales to adults from the comics' publishers.”
Tilley goes on to argue that children have been priced out of the market over the last several decades with the rising costs of comics, cites criticism of attempts to reach younger readers by the publishers, and cites the success of manga with younger readers over the last decade.
While arguing that over the last 15 years, some librarians and teachers are increasingly discovering that comics can be used to support reading and instruction, despite their overall marginalization, Tilley said the distinct comic book aesthetic – frames, thought and speech bubbles, motion lines, to name a few – has been co-opted by children’s books, creating a hybrid format.
“There has been an increase in the number of comic book-type elements in books for younger children,” Tilley said. “There’s also a greater appreciation among both teachers and librarians for what comics and comic books can bring to the classroom. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English sponsors an instructional Web site called ‘Read, Write, Think,’ which has a lot of comics-related material. Instructional units like these would have been much more rare 10 years ago.”
Tilley’s research on comics was published recently in School Library Monthly.