World of Words: No longer restricted reading

When graphic novelist and Grade 7 teacher Rebecca Hicks was in school, reading “comics” under the desk would have earned her a trip to the principal’s office. Now, in her classroom, they’re required reading.

“I’ve had great success using graphic novels to enhance reading instruction,” says Hicks. She guides more advanced readers to classical mythology by explaining how the trials of their favourite characters are inspired by myths.

Her reluctant readers think graphic novels are easy reading. When Hicks asks them to write reports about characters and themes, they produce the same level of analysis as her advanced readers.

“I use that confidence to guide them to try ‘harder’ books.”

Eric Helmick, manager of Bosco’s, an Anchorage comic and graphic novel store, argues the genre has always been literature, “but years before graphic novels were created, the definition of literature changed to only include fine literature.”

The majority of Helmick’s customers are history or science-minded, but initially, the market was teenage boys or men reliving their youth. With the rise of Japanese manga books, “that trend kept going.”

The genre covers a wide range says Helmick, because, “You can tell any kind of story in this format.” He notes, “In Japan your employee manual would probably be a manga book.” Even the 9-11 committee commissioned a graphic novel version of their report so the content and convoluted timelines could be followed easily.

Helmick has seen studies that show that people with severe learning challenges are attracted to, and read, early grade manga. Later they can articulate the plot line. “Like a short story, only the pertinent information is contained in each panel and we fill in the rest in our imaginations,” he says.

Readers process the blank gutters between frames as scene breaks. Graphic novelists use this to their advantage, says Helmick. “The panels are moment to moment with clear plot point resolutions.”

Hicks finds that “illustrations soften the blow of difficult themes.” She compares graphic novels to stories with animal figures, such as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or George Orwell’s Animal Farm. To her “the illustrations, the aspect of graphic novels that contributes to the prejudices against them, actually enhances the features that make them good literature.”

She adds, “The best graphic novels have complex characters, strong narratives, and inferable themes conveyed with appropriate language.”

Helmick believes “just as literature has its own good, average and lame examples, so do graphic novels. Only recently have the amazing graphic novels, that comic readers have cherished for years, started to get mainstream recognition.”

He predicts as appreciation rises, “a wider audience will see that not only do graphic novels deserve to be classified as literature, but that they add an element that takes literature to a whole new level.”

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