This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on April 14, 2014.
About a month ago I published an article about the need for comics specific education and programs. I wrote that no current area of study fully encompassed the medium and what it is capable of. It is not the first time I have written on that subject and it will certainly not be the last. Only a week later the subject was raised in conversation with a friend of mine whom I respect a great deal. Upon hearing that I wanted to develop collegiate programs to study comics, he asked me what the benefit of those classes would be. Why should schools pay to fund those courses? Instead of providing an earnest answer, I responded flippantly, “They pay for film studies, so why not?”
The moment I said it, I regretted it. That answer isn’t good enough. Not even close. So I’m going to take a mulligan on this one. I’m going to answer the question the way it deserves to be answered.
The Question: Why should comics be funded and taught in both public schools and at a collegiate level?
The Answer: We start learning about the written word as soon as we start school. From kindergarten on, there is a regular and consistent focus on both writing and reading. Literacy is a huge focus, as it should be. Yet the focus on literacy with a written word has left other forms of communication neglected.
We exist in a world where we are constantly bombarded with communication. Televisions, iPhones, computers, tablets, etc… the ways we interact with the world are variable and constant. Many of these forms also rely on images. Advertisers have always relied on pictures to convey their messages and that is for good reason. A thirty-second advertisement is capable of evoking deep emotion in some. A carefully rendered image on a billboard can do the same. Images are powerful tools of communication. A single picture can carry more weight than a well-researched essay and delivers that information instantaneously. Yet there is very little emphasis on graphic literacy.
There’s a need to understand how we can communicate with others and how others, in turn, communicate with us. Command of language is important in all aspects of life, ranging from interpersonal relationships to professional meetings. Without an understanding of written language, it is impossible to effectively communicate. Yet written and spoken language are only two aspects of communication. Visual language is an important aspect and a growing one. The lack of focus on language outside of the written and spoken word is creating adults who are inadequately prepared to engage with the world. Not only does it hinder their ability to understand art and stories, but it ensures that adults lack the tools to comprehend the effects of advertising or propaganda. It’s a problem and it’s one that comic literacy goes a long way in solving.
Comics are primarily a visual medium. No matter how large of a focus is placed on writers; a script without an artist is not a comic. A comic relies on pictures, placed side-by-side in a purposeful order to convey information. This information is composed on various levels, ranging from the staging of forms in a panel to the composition of panels across a page. Every aesthetic choice is purposeful and effects the reader. This is not purely a question of design either. Colors and lettering have a great effect on how a comic is read and interpreted. Every element of every page is important, making the understanding of comics a massive, multi-faceted undertaking. The ways in which comics can teach people about the world are limitless.
These elements of design, color, composition, art, and so many other things help to create a substantial understanding of visual language. They can be applied across mediums to film, television, and painting. They can be applied to the creation of a business brief, to a student flier, or to an instruction manual. Engineers, economists, fashion designers… the list of careers to which comics literacy applies are limitless.
There is not only a place for comic studies in education. There is a need. An understanding of comics will not only enhance students, but the society to which they contribute.
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When I first started writing about comics on a regular basis over a year ago, I started by posting a quote from Scott McCloud as a thesis.
“Comics is a powerful idea, but an idea that’s been squandered, ignored, and misunderstood for generations. No art form has lived in a smaller box than comics for the last hundred years. It’s time for comics to finally grow up and find the art beneath the craft.”
I thought it was a powerful, honest statement then. I think the same now. There is an important place for comics in our classrooms, in our homes, and in our lives. Comics are capable of connecting with people in a unique way. It is a medium of unbridled imagination, unlimited potential, and with no barrier to entry. It deserves advocates who can speak to that incredible power so that it can be shared.
It is still an undernourished medium though that suffers from a lot of public skepticism. The typical association with comics for most adults is still “superheroes”. Time and patience are requirements for changing that public perception, so that comics can be treated with the same respect as music, prose, or film. The biggest requirement will be people capable of educating others about comics. The comics medium needs people who can give the right answers to the big questions.
I need to give the right answers.