By the time Baron started high school, his family had moved five times — from Los Angeles to Kansas to New York City, with stops in between. In each new place, Baron would hide out in public libraries, escaping into books, cartoons and comic books. He started collecting humor comics but was hooked on classic literature, too, devouring comics based on War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities.
It seemed like all the grownups in America despised comic books, but Baron didn’t care what people thought then, and he doesn’t care now. He’s always viewed comics as a valuable tool for “communicating history, and the history of people through art as well as words,” he says today, as he approaches his 82nd birthday. At a time when most of his contemporaries are long retired, Baron’s Golden-based Fulcrum Publishing is enjoying a second, even third wind — as the creator of educational comics.
Getting kids to read? That’s a job for a superhero.
The predecessor of the comic book debuted in the New York World near the turn of the twentieth century, when publisher Joseph Pulitzer bought a color press — scarce back then — and introduced a bright, four-page Sunday supplement of illustrated stories meant to engage his immigrant and lower-class readers.
Popular magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal, the Nation and Good Housekeeping were quick to complain that these “funny pages” were particularly offensive because they were published on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. A 1906 article in the Atlantic Monthly criticized the cartoons as “humor prepared and printed for the extremely dull.” No matter: The comics business was soon booming.
By the late ’20s, newspaper comics had begun incorporating pulp and sensationalism in order to appeal to their core readers: adolescent boys and working-class men. Before long, Eastern Color, the printing company that handled presswork for many Sunday supplements in the northeastern United States, had figured out a way to make extra cash by producing cheap promotional books using newspaper reprints. Funnies on Parade (1933), regarded as the first comic book, wasn’t intended for sale, but its success as a sales gimmick — “Buy 10 Boxes of Sugar Yums; Get a Free Funny Book!” — led to a second collection of newspaper reprints, Famous Funnies, that was tagged with a ten-cent sticker and sold nationally by the American News Company.
Soon Will Eisner, one of the first artists to work in the American comic-book industry, approached Jerry Iger about starting a manufacturing partnership that would produce ready-to-print comic-book stories for publishers; their studio opened at the start of 1937, and others quickly followed. As author David Hajdu explains in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, “Comic books, even more so than newspaper strips before them, attracted a high quotient of creative people who thought of more established modes of publishing as foreclosed to them: immigrants and children of immigrants, women, Jews, Italians, Negroes, Latinos, Asians and myriad social outcasts.”
In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster started the golden age of comics when they developed an unusual new character, Superman, for Action Comics, a predecessor of today’s DC Comics. In 1937, 150 comic-book titles had been published in this country; three years later, there were 700 titles. By 1940, Superman sales alone were up to 1,250,000 copies monthly, and others wanted in on the action: Wonder Man, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Aquaman and Wonder Woman, to name just a few, all appeared by 1941.
Not only are comic books making a comeback in the classroom today, but critics are taking a revisionist look at the form, as well. “There was actually a lot of thought being put into these comics,” says Illya Kowalchuk, director of education at Denver’s Pop Culture Classroom. “Many of the comic-book creators in the 1940s were New York Jews. What these guys were doing was responding to the horrors they saw during the Holocaust. They were trying to create super-powered characters to deal with the world, and they were pushing boundaries to deal with their trauma — and that’s art at its very best.”
Whatever the subject, the draftsmanship of artists such as Hal Foster (“Prince Valiant”) and Alex Raymond (“Flash Gordon”) was top-notch, and some of the writing had a literary quality way ahead of its time. Eisner himself was constantly pushing boundaries — physically, when he drew outside the lines, and figuratively when he created ordinary, well-developed characters like the ones in his strip “The Spirit,” who “struggled with real emotions and got bruises when they were hit,” Hajdu writes.
Comic books weren’t just about superheroes; any adventure would suffice. Spies, cowboys — the only requirement, it seemed, was that the story fit into panels. “Sold next to the candy on newsstands and drugstore racks,” Hajdu says, “comic books were generally thought of as another nutrient-free but essentially harmless confection for kids.”
That is, until children’s-book author Sterling North published a story in the Chicago Daily News in 1940 urging parents to take a good look at what their kids were reading. (Presumably, kids should have been reading North’s books, which weren’t selling nearly as well as comics.) North thought that the colorful pictures in comics were bad for children’s eyes and their brain development. Arguing (falsely) that all comics were marketed toward kids, he boldly claimed that comic books were “guilty of the cultural slaughter of innocence.”
The National Parent-Teacher Association’s magazine, along with forty other publications, republished Sterling’s piece. In letters to the editor, irate librarians dwelled on the comic books’ objectionable language and dubbed them “the highly colored enemy.” The Catholic Church was more concerned with hypersexuality and became the first organization to launch a major campaign against comic books via a list put out by its National Organization for Decent Literature.
This despite the fact that many mental-health professionals considered comic books beneficial. In a 1941 speech, New York child psychiatrist Lauretta Bender even praised them for “serving…as a means of helping [adolescents] solve the individual and sociological problems appropriate to their own lives.”
The criticism didn’t slow the industry’s very healthy growth, however. In 1940, comic books grossed somewhere between $8 and $12 million in sales, compared to the $2 million that traditional children’s books brought in. And as America’s involvement in World War II escalated, fear of comic books was replaced by fear of Nazis. Many superheroes enlisted, fighting Hitler on the pages of those books. A quarter of all comic books printed were shipped overseas to the troops — because they were cheap, portable, easy to read and uplifting.
After the war, America had a new enemy: Juvenile delinquency was reportedly on the rise because fathers hadn’t been around to discipline their children. Kids stayed out late; they were drinking and smoking marijuana, getting picked up for loitering — all at a time when comic-book sales were mushrooming. By that point, the most popular form of entertainment in America, comics sold between 80 million and 100 million copies per week. Helping push those sales was Charles Biro’s sensational Crime Does Not Pay, which he’d started in 1942. A single issue of that true-crime comic sold about a million copies in 1947 and was passed to nearly 5 million readers.
One of those readers was fourteen-year-old Melvin Leeland, who snuck a .22-caliber pistol from his grandma’s farmhouse and shot himself in the head while teaching a friend how to play Russian roulette. Two months later, twelve-year-old William Becker — also a comic-book reader — hanged himself in the basement. Becker’s mom and the county coroner blamed comics, and the New York Times ran a headline — “Comics Blamed in Death” — that captivated the nation.
Criticism of comics increased. “Their word selection is as wretched as their drawing or the paper on which they are printed,” wrote drama critic John Mason Brown. Another columnist called comic books the “poison diet.” Noted the Nation, “We would be the first to acknowledge that a generation of Americans has been driven several degrees toward illiteracy by the comic book.” The Los Angeles Times ran a story titled “Sex and Sadism Rampant: It’s Time Parents Awakened to Danger in Comic Books.”
“There was no such thing as intellectual criticism of comic books,” Eisner — who left the industry and went into commercial art right before everything crumbled — recalled in Hajdu’s book.
In 1915, a U.S. Supreme Court decision had determined that free-speech protections didn’t apply to motion pictures because they could be used for evil. That decision was what led Hollywood to create its self-censoring Hays Code in the ’30s, and it later gave municipalities the authority to create ordinances that prohibited the display and sale of comic books.
Detroit was the first city to really crack down. In April 1948, police officers in that city seized copies of comic books from the stands; ultimately, Detroit officials banned 36 titles. The target was crime comics, but all genres got blasted. By 1949, laws like Detroit’s had spread to fourteen states. In Los Angeles, comic-book sales became a misdemeanor that carried a $500 fine or six-month jail sentence.
A few Catholic schools had held comic-book burnings as early as 1945, but the practice really caught fire in 1948. That’s when a quiet boy in Spencer, West Virginia, and his public-school teacher created an after-school bonfire with truckloads of comics collected from the children of the town.
Fanning the flames was Frederic Wertham, a pioneering neurobiologist who worked on mental-health issues, primarily affecting low-income children. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry,” wrote Wertham, who claimed that his research had shown a direct correlation between comic-book reading and delinquency, and urged a legislative ban. He considered Superman a fascist and the Batman and Robin strips “a template for homosexual deviancy that would give kids ideas,” according to Charles Brownstein, executive director of the now nearly thirty-year-old Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
By 1950, crime comics had vanished from the stands, and so had dozens of costumed characters, including Captain America, the Flash and the Green Lantern. But the industry was still going strong. Of the forty American publishers active at the start of the ’50s, Dell Comics, Atlas (Marvel), DC and Archie were the major players; Dell comic books alone accounted for one-third of all North American sales, with its ninety titles each averaging a circulation of 800,000 copies every issue. Dell’s non-superhero characters — Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Tarzan, for example — had circulations that each averaged over 2 million copies every month. DC Comics profited from New Funnies, an anthology melding humor features with dramatic Western fare, and romance comics became an established genre — and a way for publishers to reach a growing demographic of female fans. There were even comics about the U.S. Constitution.
And then a new player entered the picture. Under M.C. Gaines, Educational Comics had put out humor comics and an array of wholesome, educational titles for children: Picture Stories From the Bible, Picture Stories From American History, Picture Stories From Science and Animal Fables, among others. But the company was so unprofitable that Gaines couldn’t even bribe folks to like it (he tried, too), and he’d racked up about $100,000 in debt before he died in a freak boating accident. His son had inherited EC in 1947, and a few years later flipped the script in favor of a brand-new comic genre: horror.
For titles like Weird Fantasy and Tales From the Crypt, the younger Gaines employed some of the most creative people in comics; he paid well and promptly, encouraged artists to use their own styles and allowed them to sign their work. In horror comics, as he explained in an EC job listing in Writer’s Digest, morbidity ruled and virtue didn’t have to triumph over evil. In order to draw readers, publishers continually upped the stakes, and that led to some pretty over-the-top material.
As well as some over-the-top responses. In 1951, Congress’s Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce devoted several of its hearings on organized crime to the issue of comic books and delinquency. Although it ultimately exonerated crime comics while casting doubt on any causal link between comics and juvenile delinquency, the committee hearings had their effect. While there was only a 9 percent drop in the number of releases between 1952 and 1953, circulation plummeted by an estimated 30 to 40 percent, according to Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books.
And a few years later, the federal government was at it again — this time with the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, whose members took a closer look at comics during well-publicized hearings in New York City in the spring and summer of 1954. “Comic-book publishers were told they had to clean themselves up or the government would do it for them,” Brownstein says. Looking to the film industry for guidance, a few comic-book publishers — working within the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP), an organization that had been founded in 1947 to appease the public — created a code of editorial standards that would eventually become known as the Comics Code Authority. The code had a dozen overarching principles and several more clarifications, most involving sex, violence and the need for good to triumph over evil. Members were strongly urged to honor the code, and weren’t allowed to slap a code-approved seal on their comic books unless the content was approved prior to print.
Hajdu estimates that 800 people lost their jobs as the industry contracted. Restrictions forbidding words like “crime” and “horror” in book titles basically put Gaines’s company out of business; all of its titles except for Mad were canceled. Mad survived only because Gaines converted the publication to magazine format, and the code didn’t apply to that. (Later, of course, the content changed to comedy.)
Meanwhile, attempts to launch code-friendly material failed miserably. The big survivor was Dell’s Four Color Comics — a silly, character-driven romp named for the four basic colors originally used to print comics. One of the longest-running American comic books, it published more than 1,000 issues between 1939 and 1962, the current record for most issues of an American comic book produced.
The comic-book industry didn’t start to recover until the early 1960s, when “it did so by retrenching, shifting back to the heroic doings of superheroes,” writes Hajdu. Comic books became incredibly tame, and the plots were targeted to very young kids. It would be another decade before comic books again reached out to an older audience, Brownstein notes, and then only through direct sales to adults from the publishers. And it would be yet another decade before publishers started looking for ways to get around the code. Revised several times, the code remained in effect until 2011, when DC and Archie finally dropped the seal, effectively nullifying nearly sixty years of self-censorship.
As the code faded into history, publishers and comics creators started advocating for reconnecting adolescents and older audiences with their material. And Bob Baron’s company found just the way to do that.
Like the history of comics, Bob Baron’s career has taken some unexpected turns. He never set out to become a book publisher, much less a publisher of comic books. After graduating from St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia with undergraduate degrees in physics and philosophy, he started working in the space industry, designing the onboard computers that took the Mariner II and Mariner IV missions to Venus and Mars. “He was one of the earliest computer engineers in the 1960s,” notes Melanie Roth, Fulcrum’s sales and marketing director.
Baron went on to found Prime Computers, a Fortune 500 company that produced minicomputers, and when he segued into early retirement, Baron, always a doer, “decided he needed a hobby,” Roth continues. “He’s an intellectual, and he wanted to take his knowledge and the causes he feels strongly about and put them into book form to help educate the country — and eventually the world.”
After decades on the East Coast, Baron picked Golden as the ideal place to start his next endeavor. He hired a handful of people — an editor, a designer — and launched Fulcrum Publishing in 1984. “This was back in the early days, and they made it up as they went along, publishing a few books a year at first,” says Roth.
Although Baron’s primary focus is conservation, Fulcrum has dabbled in everything from baseball and the outdoors to grief. One of Fulcrum’s first books, in fact, was a guide for women mourning the loss of a spouse. Fulcrum made Native American authors a specialty, too. “He did books about Native American people that were written by Native American authors. That was a very big deal to him, because he wanted to provide an authentic voice,” Roth says.
Fulcrum’s number of titles grew as its staff grew; over the past thirty years, Baron’s independent publishing house has produced more than 900 books. Today it has a staff of eight and releases between fifteen and twenty titles annually. “Most of our stuff is nonfiction,” says Roth, listing an inventory of gardening books, Western-history titles and guidebooks.
“We get to be a voice for the region, and we’re lucky to work with some of the very important people that our region has produced,” says Fulcrum’s editor in chief, Beck McEwen, who notes that Fulcrum is currently working on a book by former governor Bill Ritter. (It just published Durango, a novel by former senator Gary Hart.)
Over the years, incoming editors and staffers have brought their own ideas and passions to the table. When Baron’s son-in-law, Sam Scinta, was hired as an editor in the mid-1990s, he added political-science titles and upped the emphasis on Native American works, traveling around Washington, South Dakota and Wisconsin to talk with different tribes and meet more authors. Scinta took a brief hiatus to attend law school, but missed publishing and returned as managing editor in the early 2000s. In 2007, Baron officially handed over the reins when he made Scinta publisher.
And that’s when he found a new focus for Fulcrum. “Sam played an integral role in bringing the Native American voice into comic-book format,” says Roth. “It all started with Trickster.” In 2010, Fulcrum published the book, an anthology of Native American tales — all told in comic-strip form.
Editor Matt Dembicki approached Fulcrum with the idea for Trickster after he came across a book of trickster tales at his local library in Virginia. “He thought this would make an incredible graphic novel,” Roth recalls. Dembicki had plenty of contributing artists in mind, but he wanted at least one Native American voice, too. He connected with one of Fulcrum’s best-selling authors and poets, Joe Bruchac, whose short stories, novels, anthologies and music reflect his strong Abenaki Indian heritage.
When Dembicki and Bruchac told Fulcrum that they were ready to team up on a comic anthology, “former associate publisher Derek Lawrence and our current publisher, Sam Scinta, jumped at the opportunity to bring together Native American folklore and the world of comics,” Roth says.
All cultures have tales of tricksters — crafty creatures who use cunning to get food, steal or simply cause mischief. For Trickster, more than twenty Native American tales were cleverly adapted into comic form, and each story is written by a different Native American storyteller, who worked closely with an illustrator. “Ranging from serious and dramatic to funny and sometimes downright fiendish, these tales bring tricksters back into popular culture in a very vivid form,” explains Roth. From an ego-driven social misstep in “Coyote and the Pebbles” to the hijinks of “How Wildcat Caught a Turkey” and the hilarity of “Rabbit’s Choctaw Tail Tale,” Trickster’s colorful panels and pages captivated readers of all ages.
“There are other publishers doing nonfiction comics,” says Roth, “but we are one of the only ones doing unconventional histories.”
Many of the stories are told through captions — “as though listening to an elder and envisioning the images he describes,” Roth says. Diverse styles from a diverse group of artists are presented in lavish hues packaged into one thick, handsome volume.
Sixty-five years ago, teachers and librarians were burning comic books in flames that reportedly soared 25 feet high. Today, Fulcrum aggressively markets its comics to schools and libraries, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Libraries will approach us at conferences and say [Trickster] is the most special book they’ve ever seen,” says Roth.
In addition to selling nearly 40,000 copies in five years, making it one of the company’s all-time best sellers, Trickster has garnered glowing reviews from publishing trade magazines, librarians, teachers and comic lovers. According to the School Library Journal, “The total package is accessible, entertaining, educational, inspiring, and a must-have for all collections.”
Since Trickster, Fulcrum has published seven more comic titles, including District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, D.C.; Strange Fruit; and Colonial Comics: New England: 1620-1750. Roth had been as surprised by the success of the comic books as anyone. She admits that she read a few Archie comics as a kid, but she never thought she’d be a comic-convention regular. Now she attends Denver Comic Con to push Fulcrum’s historical comic-book anthologies.
“There are other publishers doing nonfiction comics,” says Roth, and since Trickster’s release, she’s seen more presses — big and small — step into the nonfiction-comic genre. But, she adds, “I wouldn’t say I’ve seen any direct competition to Trickster; it truly is unique and special. And we’re one of the only ones doing unconventional histories."
Those unconventional histories are the hook that drew in writer and editor Jason Rodriguez, a nominee for an Eisner Award, the highest honor in his industry.
Rodriguez grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, reading comic book after comic book and becoming infatuated with Doctor Strange. “I had anxiety issues, and I loved the fact that he was able to solve any problem by busting out a magical spell at the last instant. That was a great thing for a kid like me,” Rodriguez says.
He was the first in his family to go to college, and he majored in bioengineering and applied mathematics because he felt obliged to do something that could “actually make money,” he says. Still, Rodriguez’s parents and a few notable public-school teachers had supported his writing, and in college Rodriguez wrote a play — a terrible play, a friend said. The friend also said that maybe, just maybe, the piece could make a good comic strip.
“That’s when I started working with Random House and Dark Horse Comics,” Rodriguez recalls. A scientist by day, he has now edited and authored half a dozen titles, in genres ranging from Westerns and horror to romance. Two years ago, though, he had the chance to home in on his real passion: nonfiction comics.
“I’ve always had a passion for nonfiction in general,” Rodriguez explains. “Like most kids, I read comics in elementary school, and then I got sick of the superhero books in high school.” But Rodriguez got back into comics in his early twenties, reading memoirs like Persepolis and Blankets. “I realized people were bringing to life these true stories in comic-book form, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he says.
When Rodriguez heard that Fulcrum was planning a comic book about colonial New England, he called on historians and professors, polling them for what they considered unconventional takes on American history. “I wasn’t interested in doing a story on Paul Revere,” he recalls. “What I wanted to do was to fill in those gaps in history and tell the stories about the Native Americans and women and freethinkers and slaves.”
In short, he wanted to give readers a better understanding of what life was really like during America’s first 150 years — and to do it in a very accessible way. He started working with Fulcrum, and each of the sixteen stories in his first anthology “represents a character in history you wouldn’t normally hear about,” he says.
“It’s amazing these stories haven’t been told yet,” Roth says, pointing to “Troublesome Sows,” University of Colorado Boulder historian Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s wordless strip about the turmoil Native Americans experienced when settlers brought livestock to this country.
“Jason contacted me, and said he had read my last book, Creatures of Empire, about domestic animals and colonization in early America,” remembers Anderson. Rodriguez wanted to adapt one of the chapters from her book, and Anderson was happy to assist. “I didn’t know much about how comic books were being used, but anything that gets colonial history out there is important,” she adds. “A lot of school curriculum dealing with American history ignores colonial times and picks up with the Revolution and Constitution, as if the other stuff is just useless background.”
It turns out that the problem with domestic livestock was that it needed space to graze, and because colonists didn’t want livestock destroying their farmland, they began practicing free-range animal husbandry, allowing their chickens and pigs to roam outside settlement farms. But Native Americans slaughtered livestock that encroached on their land, increasing tension between the two groups.
“One of my goals in my research was to suggest that animals can be historical actors even though they can’t speak, often shaping history in impactful ways,” says Anderson. She thought that ditching dialogue was a good way to incorporate subtler overarching points into the frames — and artist Michael Sgier told the story solely with pictures.
One of Rodriguez’s favorite strips from the anthology tells the story of Elizabeth Glover, a pioneer of printing in America who was “way under the radar,” he says, even though she brought the first printing press to America. Glover’s husband died when the two were crossing the Atlantic. “It would have been easier for her to sell the press and remarry, but instead of doing what she was supposed to do, she used her husband’s indentured servants to start America’s first book-publishing company,” Rodriguez explains. “It’s this person who you’ve never heard of doing amazing things, and that’s uplifting to kid readers.”
“Like most kids, I read comics in elementary school, and then I got sick of the superhero books in high school.”
The first installment of Colonial Comics debuted in October 2014, and since then, it’s sold a couple thousand copies. Two more editions are slated for 2016 and 2017; according to Roth, the plan is to publish several new historical comic-book anthologies annually.
Rodriguez is currently researching untouched stories from Virginia and Pennsylvania. He just stumbled on the tale of a man who sued the Commonwealth of Virginia in the 1600s for the right to be identified as a woman — and won. “It’s pretty amazing, considering we’re still fighting for the same thing today,” Rodriguez says.
Fulcrum hasn’t shied away from taking on controversial subjects in these books. “What’s interesting is that we’ve managed to do this in a medium that doesn’t offend people and is appropriate for middle-schoolers,” Roth says, adding that teachers appreciate having a new way of discussing tough subjects.
Kids appreciate the visual element, and Fulcrum takes that seriously, treating its comic books like the art they are. “Other publishing houses are putting out more standardized comics, but ours are all over the map. Even the trim size is unique, and the paper is thicker and higher-quality,” Roth says. They’re expensive books to make, but they end up paying for themselves.
“The great thing about the anthology format,” Roth continues, “is that you get to see all of the various kinds of art.” Some of Fulcrum’s artists use a cartoony style, and a few are a little heavy-handed; others, though, create beautiful, conceptual work.
Roth isn’t the only one who thinks that Fulcrum’s comics are works of art. In September, Whitman College in Washington will host a gallery show about comic-book art, and several of Rodriguez’s Colonial Comics strips will appear in their own alcove. Fulcrum will also be exhibiting its nonfiction comics at several local events next month, including Small Press Fest at the Savoy on September 18 and 19, and the DPS Library Services Book Expo at the Police Protective Association Event Center on September 30.
Fulcrum’s goal has always been to strike a balance between artistic value and classroom accessibility, Roth says. The original newspaper comic strips were designed to reach immigrant and low-income readers, and that’s another aspect of comics that Fulcrum’s emphasizing. The educational comics have been used to assist English as a Second Language students; combining imagery with vocabulary provides much-needed help for struggling students, as the illustrations give contextual clues to the meaning of written narrative.
“We’re also finding success with reluctant readers,” Roth says, pointing to research from the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) stating that “a number of the features found in comics can be of benefit to those with dyslexia and similar challenges, particularly the left-to-right organization of comics’ panels, the use of upper case letters, and the use of symbols and context to help with comprehension.”
“Comics don’t feel like a baby picture book; they aren’t degrading,” continues Roth. And even for kids who don’t struggle with literacy, educational comic books are proving themselves a powerful tool.
The state-directed Common Core curriculum is presenting new challenges for teachers and schools. “For language arts and reading, the goal is to focus much more on nonfiction, and they need books that basically start a dialogue,” explains editor in chief McEwen. Educators, she continues, “are asking students less about background knowledge and more about tough questions. If they are studying the Gettysburg Address, they are not just reading it; they want to launch research and conversations. Thinking about the Common Core that way, our books are a natural for supplemental reading.”
“He’s really excited about how people are using the comic books — in classrooms, libraries, museums and literacy groups.”
But persuading some people of the value of comic books hasn’t been easy. Myths about comic books didn’t disappear with the Comics Code Authority.
Some educators and parents, for example, still worry that reading comics will replace other, presumably more important genres. The CCL thinks that concern is misguided. A study from 1996 showed that boys who read comic books regularly also tended to read more text-based material and reported higher levels of overall reading enjoyment, compared to boys who did not read comic books. There’s even some evidence supporting the notion that comic books provide a gateway to other literary genres.
Another popular myth, according to the CCL, is that “the visual element of comic books makes them more suited to immature readers.” On the contrary, comic books can help readers develop a number of useful language and literacy skills; children who read comics develop many of the same skills that they get from reading text-based books, including connecting narratives to their own experiences, predicting what will happen next and inferring what happens between panels. Even before children are ready to read text, comic books can give them practice in making meaning from material printed on a page.
Like novels, comics have a beginning, middle, climax and end; they feature main characters who develop through conflicts. That means that comics can introduce some pretty advanced concepts, such as narrative structure and character development. “Comics are just as sophisticated as other forms of literature,” says Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois, “and children benefit from reading them at least as much as they do from reading other types of books.”
That’s a theory being pushed by Pop Culture Classroom. The organization recently examined its own Storytelling Through Comics curriculum, which is used in dozens of area schools; third-party evaluator Outcomes Inc. found a “statistically significant increase” in student literacy skills, as well as interest and engagement in comics, art and pop culture.
There’s been a long history of teachers hating comics, says Pop Culture’s Kowalchuk. “But there’s also been a long history of teachers who are willing to do whatever it takes to get their students to read.”
Last spring, West High School English teacher Jay Clark asked Jason Rodriguez to do a workshop on storytelling through comics in three of his sophomore English classes. The school didn’t have a budget for that kind of thing, but that wasn’t a problem for Rodriguez, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, but frequently donates his time to teach comics classes. At first he focused on classes for adults, but as his interest in educational comics grew, Rodriguez started offering free classes in libraries and schools around D.C. — and gearing them toward kids.
Today Rodriguez does workshops for children from four to eighteen. With his youngest students, he focuses on simpler subject matter, mainly creating characters and interjecting them into stories. “Comics,” Rodriguez explains, “can be a way for these children to express the vision in their head when maybe they don’t yet have the vocabulary.”
Rodriguez works with middle-schoolers in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, helping adolescents buff up on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with a program called Science Outreach Through Art and Comics. “I go in and teach them factoids about science, and then I challenge them to create a story based on the stuff they learned — either life science or science fiction,” Rodriguez says.
With older kids, “I try to hit education, and also teach them about the comic-book art form itself,” he says, adding that he takes his curriculum a step further, incorporating lessons from the host classroom. With Clark’s classes, for example, he challenged students to adapt sections of two of the books they were reading, Siddhartha and Things Fall Apart.
“I try to pick a section of the book they are working on that’s very rich, visually,” Rodriguez explains. With Things Fall Apart, he homed in on the section where locusts descend on the town: “They’re so heavy that branches are breaking, and it represents colonialism and all of these terrible things, but it’s so visual.”
The workshops were so successful that West is now considering putting several of Fulcrum’s educational comic books on the school’s required-reading list, Roth reports, noting just how far comics have come so quickly.
When Fulcrum started publishing its nonfiction comics, it called them graphic novels. That’s because teachers and librarians generally seemed more accepting of graphic novels than comic books. “I think [graphic novel] just sounds more elegant, or more serious,” Roth says.
But Rodriguez put a stop to that. One day he called Fulcrum and said that using the term just didn’t make sense, she remembers. After all, a novel is a work of fiction, and Fulcrum’s stories are true. “Sometimes we’ll still call them graphic anthologies,” Roth admits, “but, really, they’re comics.”
And they’re currently Fulcrum’s top priority. “We’d love to get more into science topics, for example, instead of just doing history,” Roth says. In fact, an adult-targeted title now in the works will use the comic format to tell the history of health care.
These days, Fulcrum’s founder leaves the comics up to Roth and McEwen. “He’s really excited about how people are using the comic books — in classrooms, libraries, museums and literacy groups,” Roth says. “It just blows his mind that it’s working.
“I think there is a very old-fashioned view of what a comic is, and we’re trying to change that, she continues. It doesn’t have to be superheroes and fictional, larger-than-life characters; it can be real people, too — the everyday, ordinary heroes who make up the tapestry of America.”