Language Matters March 2011: The Educational Value of Comics

Dear Language Friend,

A comic is a graphic medium in which images support a sequential narrative. The origin of the genre dates back to Ancient Greece. Originally a comic (from the Greek κωμικός, kōmikos “of or pertaining to comedy”) was a humorous work. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the comic in its now familiar form began to spread among European and American artists. When the first comic strips began to appear in newspapers in the early 20th century, they emerged as a popular mass medium. It didn’t take long for the strips to be gathered together in cheap booklets called comic books.

Their scope soon embraced all kinds of literary genres, beyond just humor. Nowadays comics can be found in a wide variety of media in different countries all over the world. In France and Japan, for example, comics – called bandes dessinées and mangas, respectively – have acquired huge popularity, even finding their way into the national curriculum. However in many countries such as the US, the educational potential of comics is yet to be fully explored.

Contributed by Doris Anne Heidemann. Thanks for reading!


Controversial Debate about the Educational Value of Comics in the U.S.

In the 1930s debates raged in the US regarding whether or not comics should be used for educational purposes. One argument was that they increase students’ motivation and help them remember their lessons more easily, thereby making the teaching process more effective. One study from back then revealed that by the 1940s, more than 90 % of all 8 – 14 year olds and 65% of all 15 – 18 year olds would be reading comic books. Educators started including comics in their curriculum, for example, creating a language arts workbook that starred Superman.

Some years later, the American magazine Puck – The Comic Weekly was introduced to the American classroom and soon the controversy rose again. Some argued that comics would deny children access to real literature. In his book The Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Dr. Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist in New York, warned America of the dangers of comic books, claiming that they promoted “violence, racial stereotype, homosexuality, rebelliousness, and illiteracy”. The debate over the educational value of comics seemed to come to a standstill. It wasn’t until the 1970s that American teachers brought comic books back into the classroom. They considered them useful for the teaching of dialect and characterization.


Spiegelman’s Maus Wins the Pulitzer Prize – Renaissance of the Comic

TIn 1992, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a biography of his father’s Holocaust experience, became the first comic book to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the debate ended. The comic had become a sophisticated work of art. Over the next decade it solidified its place in American classrooms. In 1995, Neil Williams introduced Calvin and Hobbes comic books into the ESL-classroom of the American Language Institute of New York University.

Finally comics were considered to be a medium worthy of study itself. In the new millennium librarians have shown their support for comics, arguing that they entice teenagers away from television and video games. Many comics-based projects have surfaced since then: innovative teachers now appreciate the creative thinking behind them. Above all, the graphic genre helps visual learners as well as Second Language students with language comprehension. All in all, comics are motivational, visual, and popular and it is agreed that they can promote any subject at any grade level. Nowadays comics are no longer regarded as “low culture”; they have found the recognition they deserve.