The evolution of comic books: From “mentally deficient” to brain boosting

From a low-brow adolescent distraction to a sophisticated art form and educational tool, comic books are finally having their moment in the sun.

Gene Luen Yang: Out of all of the visual storytelling media that are out there – film, animation, television – comics is really the only one that is not time-bound. That’s what I call permanent. Which means, you know, when you’re watching a movie or when you’re watching an animated television series, the rate of information flow is actually determined by the creator of the content. It’s not determined by the viewer. You know, you could slow it down, you can go slow-mo but it’s not the same experience.

Comics on the other hand, with comics the rate of information flow is firmly in the control of the reader. And for certain students and certain kinds of information, that aspect of comics, that control makes for a very powerful educational tool.

In an Algebra II class that I taught whenever I was absent I would create these comics lessons for my students. And that was some of the feedback that I got from them is that, you know, with these comics lessons it was visual, unlike their math textbooks. But then on top of that the students themselves could control how quickly or slowly they read through that lecture. Unlike when I was lecturing in person, right? When I’m lecturing in person I decide how fast or slow I speak. But when they’re reading it in the form of a comic, if they didn’t understand a passage within that comic they could reread it as quickly or as slowly as they needed to.

In the past I think parents and teachers had almost a hierarchy of reading. They saw picture books as almost the lower form of reading than pure prose novels. And comic books, which is my area of expertise, were either left out of the equation altogether or they were seen as like this middle point, this stepping stone between picture books and prose books. And if you were a good enough student you wouldn’t need that stepping stone. Things are changing now and I think more and more parents and teachers are realizing that pictures can be a very sophisticated way of communicating information. Just as sophisticated as text. Back in the olden days, if you look at comics often the picture was there to basically present what the words were already conveying. So you would have a caption that says “Superman punches Lex Luthor.” And then in the picture it would just show you Superman punching Lex Luthor, right? And I think that contributed to this idea that comics were meant for the “mentally deficient.” If you weren’t smart enough to get the meaning of those words then you could at least read the picture. Nowadays though I think if you look at the top comic book writers, the top comic book creators, the relationship between the words and the pictures is much more complex. Often they will pass narrative responsibility back and forth; so in certain parts of a comic or graphic novel the words will convey what the most important information is in that story, and then in the next passage it would get passed to the pictures. And in the hands of a skilled creator each of those forms, each of those forms of communication, the picture and the words, will be leveraged for what they’re best at. There are other comics where the words and the pictures are actually contradicting each other. They might even be telling two different stories, describing two different realities, and they ask you as the reader to decide which one is true.

I really think that to engage today’s audience – today’s audience has grown up on stories. Every single one of us has probably consumed thousands and thousands and thousands of stories within our lifetime. In order to engage in audiences sophisticated as that, you need to have a sophisticated dynamic between words and pictures.

Can comic books make you smarter? It seems too good to be true, but as graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang explains, they've come a long, long way. Imagine this: in the early days of comics, a caption would read: "Superman punches Lex Luthor," and it would be accompanied by a drawing of—drumroll!—Superman punching Lex Luthor. Basic, right? "That contributed to this idea that comics were meant for the mentally deficient. If you weren't smart enough to understand those words, then you could at least read the picture," says Luen Yang. Since then, graphic novelists have shaken things up, and the relationship between the words and pictures is more complex, with narrative responsibility going back and forth and occasionally shooting off into ambiguity. So why does Luen Yang think modern comics have a place in every classroom? Because our brains are not computers: "The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor," as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote. We depend on narratives to help make sense of our world—whether that's algebra, history, or chemistry. Educational comics are turning out to be powerful tools that help kids learn at their own pace. Gene Luen Yang's most recent book is Paths & Portals.

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