Can't Read ComicsA column article, Fool Britannia by: Regie Rigby
It’s probably my fault – I bring these things on myself. Last time, you may remember I bemoaned the fact that nobody uses comics to reach out to kids anymore, and hypothesised that this might be because kids no longer read them in this internet-enabled multi-media age.
Turns out it’s worse than that.
Let me set the scene.
I’m teaching a unit on Journalism to my Year Nine Students*. One of the exercises is to get them to pick a short story and re-present it as a Broadsheet newspaper article. Since my experience tells me that the average thirteen year old has a memory for school related stuff roughly on a par with that of a goldfish – or worse, <i>me</i> - I anticipated that some of my charges would forget to bring a short story to class, I decided I’d have some on hand for those who arrived unprepared.
Then I thought (because I’m not as stupid as I look) – “Hang on. If I give them a twenty page short story at the beginning of a lesson, they’ll spend so much time ‘reading it, Sir’ that they’ll have very little time to complete the task**. So then I thought again, and realised that the solution was simple.
More especially, one off stories from <b>2000AD</b>. A Story told in four or five pages of comic strip cannot possibly take more than a couple of minutes to read but contains enough incident to make for a decent news article. Problem very much solved! Or so I thought.
Obviously, I was prepared for a less than positive reaction to the comics themselves – I’d had this idea while I was at work, so I didn’t have access to my collection, only the few collections and trade paperbacks that I keep in my classroom. In fact, the only thing I had that was suitable was my copy of <a href=http://www.amazon.co.uk/Judge-Dredd-Complete-Case-Files/dp/1904265790>Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files – Volume #1</a>.
Now, while from my point of view this isn’t in any way a bad thing, I have to accept that the stories contained within the red cardboard covers of this masterpiece are now over thirty years old, and as such, they’re aimed at the <i>parents</i> of the kids I teach. My lot belong to a different time and the future depicted in early <b>2000AD</b> isn’t something that they really relate to – things have moved on, tastes have moved with them. That’s fine. Nostalgia is only nostalgia if you were there the first time, after all.
No, that’s not the problem. The <i>problem</i> is the reaction that one of my students had to the very <i>concept</i> of reading a comic. She had, she asserted, never read one. Never wanted to read one and even if she <i>did</i> - which she stated again she <i>didn’t</i>, she had no idea <i>how</i> to read one.
“It’s just a bunch of words in bubbles, Sir – it doesn’t make any sense!”
I was a little surprised, but took this in my stride. I’m a teacher after all, and showing kids how to do things they couldn’t do before the start of the lesson is my job. So, I sat down next to this kid and demonstrated how to follow the reading track within a panel, and how the same left to right downward zig-zag track generally worked if you followed it down the whole page linking the individual panels into a coherent narrative.
My student followed the explanation closely, tracing the reading track with her finger as I went through it with her. We read the story together – something I haven’t done with a student since the two weeks compulsory experience I did in a primary school at the start of my teacher training. When we’d finished reading (hell, I even did voices) she looked at me with an expression of utter incomprehension and said:
“But it still doesn’t make any sense! What are they talking about? I don’t get it!”
I was speechless.***
Slowly, and trying hard not to patronise I explained the plot of the story she’d just read. Judge Dredd was pursuing a suspect who utilised one of Mega City One’s “face change parlours” to alter his appearance. Dredd isn’t fooled and gets his man. Seriously – four pages, how complicated can it possibly be?
My student looked at me again, like I was the stupid one.****
“How does it say any of that?” She queried. “It’s just a bunch of random words and pictures. <i>And</i> it’s black and white.”
That last detail was added in a rather accusatory tone – being black and white is, it seems the worst possible crime a text can commit in the eyes of the modern Doncaster teenager…
I paused for a second. Was I being wound up? This was one of my “livelier” students***** who is certainly not above lightening her day by spoofing the teacher. But no. This is the third year in a row I’ve taught this particular student and I know her reasonably well. Lively she may be, good at acting she is <i>not</i>. The confusion and bewilderment in her eyes seemed genuine enough. She really <i>didn’t</i> have any clue how to go about making sense of sequential art.
A quick, if slightly incredulous, vox pop of the rest of the class produced results that were slightly more encouraging - but <i>only</i> slightly. Whilst my confused student was the only one in the class who couldn’t make head not tale of the story in front of her, several found it difficult to follow the reading track and more than half had never read a comic before in their lives.
I mean, I <i>know</i> that the average age of the comics readership is rising. But <i>knowing</i> an unpalatable truth is one thing – having it demonstrated before your eyes is quite another. Kids really don’t read comics anymore. They just don’t want to, and looking at the racks of my LCS recently, I’m not that surprised – there just isn’t very much there for them. Looking at the racks on the news-agents, there’s even less.
What are we doing about it?
I’m not guilt free here. The comic that I’m writing****** is aimed at an adult audience. There is something of a derth of good content for kids and young teens in the Anglophone comics market – and if we’re not catching them while they’re young, how do we attract new readers at all?
I’m distressed to discover that I have no solutions to offer here – but I’m open to suggestions. I knew there was a problem, but the problem is worse than I thought. What do we – as a community of readers – do about it?
*Note to non-Brits and Brits over the age of 35. “Year Nine” equates to the old fashioned “Third Year Secondary” and basically means that the kids are 13 at the start of the school year.
**Lessons at my school are very short – by the time they’ve arrived and got their stuff together we’re lucky to have 45 minutes teaching time.
***Something which happens only rarely, let me tell you…
****To be fair, most students look at most teachers this way rather a lot of the time. It’s a teenager thing.
***** “Lively”, when used by teachers to describe students is code for “loud and annoying”. Not to be confused with “Challenging”, which tends to mean “Loud and annoying, and probably armed.”
******Which is, finally, very nearly finished. Watch this space…