As a father, reader, and English teacher, I take great interest in my children’s reading. I want them to both read and learn from great books not simply as escapism, but also as tools for emotional learning. I hope as my kids read, they will be able to see not only the good in the characters they read about, but also the good that they can achieve as human beings.
I’m also a huge comics fan. I absolutely love the stories that come out of Marvel and DC, and find the artwork refreshing and immersive. And if it so be that my kids enjoy comics, fantastic (I am, in fact, suspicious that my three-month old son is kinda’ getting into Justice League).
Although it’s often tempting to think so, those two modes of thought are not at odds with each other. Reading narratives is all about learning certain life lessons (irrespective of whether the author meant to put them there or not- there’s a whole scholarly school of thought about it), and that happens regardless of whether a child is reading Shakespeare or Superman, whether it’s Austin or the Avengers, whether it’s Tolstoy or Transformers.
What I’m NOT saying . . .
Before I go on too much, let me make something really clear. I’m not saying that you should go and buy your child a comic right now and get your child to read them exclusively. Children and adults should read broadly. Even though I believe comics have the ability to teach life lessons that we sometimes think are exclusive to novels, people in general need to learn these lessons from as many different sources as possible.
I’m also not going the other way and dismissing books in favour of any other kind of media. I’m not suggesting that what can be done with a book can be done with, say, a movie, or a TV show, or a video game. Books and comics, in my view, share one very important trait- they allow us to stop.
When we read a narrative in print, we can give ourselves time to put it down and think deeply about what message is being sent to us. In taking the time to think about the theme a printed narrative presents, we are able to form our own opinions on it and grow as human beings.
Screen-based media doesn’t offer us the same opportunity. They present us with the message and then move straight on to action scenes or that final kiss. There is little time to think about it, little time to process what is going on. Yes, we can pause the DVD, but we’re hardly encouraged to as we watch. Printed media is far more likely to give us that opportunity.
What I am saying is that if your child is reading a comic- and this is the important part- DON’T FREAK OUT! They’re not denying themselves the ability to learn valuable lessons, it’s simply that the method of teaching has been altered slightly.
What are they learning?
The cop-out response is that many comics raise questions over what it means to be great or, let’s say; heroic: Is someone a hero because of their physical abilities or because of their character? The answer is usually in the latter, but this example is a little vague for my liking. To really explain my point, I’d like to refer to my two favourite comic series to date.
If I had to pick an absolute favourite comic series, it would be DC Comics’ Nightwing written by Kyle Higgins.
As a child, Nightwing was better known as Robin, the boy sidekick to Batman. When he grew up, he took on a new identity and spent a lot of time forging his own path.
What strikes me about this character is that unlike Batman, who uses intimidation and is often written as emotionally disconnected, Nightwing is a genuinely nice guy. He has no problems with telling others that he cares for them and is best known for his shows of empathy. He’s also an alpha male- physically strong and able to overcome a great many obstacles. I love the idea here that being a nice guy is not opposite to being masculine- you can be both.
Is that something I want my child to understand? You bet. Is that something I aim for? Absolutely!
Another one of my favourite titles is Marvel’s All-New X-men. In this one, Cyclops, the former heroic leader of the X-men has turned more or less evil as the result of many years living in an unideal society.
As a result, a younger Cyclops is pulled forward in time to remind the modern anti-hero of how far he has fallen from his original ideals. The younger hero is, obviously, far more innocent: he’s seen a lot less of the rough side of life and he still maintains his original peaceful ideas.
In essence, this is a book that shows youthful innocence with all of its hopefulness and idealism , as a strength rather than a weakness. It’s a message that I would love my kids to understand when they reach their teens and are thrust into environments where their peers might look down on innocence as a sign that they haven’t “grown up”.
These are lessons that every human being should learn. Can they learn such lessons in novels? Of course they can! But it would be unwise to assume that novels hold a monopoly on life lessons.
Good narratives teach good lessons, and if your child is learning that lesson from a comic instead of a novel, all you need to assume is that the lesson is being learnt.