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Jim Bone

Anna L. Nielsen
Paper for Final Project
Graphic Novels, Libraries and Literacy
In the last ten years or so, the graphic novel has taken its place among the
most popular of publications. As a result of this popularity, and in response to the
desires of their patrons, the graphic novel has found its way more and more
frequently in to many library collections. It is amazing to those who have had any
long term involvement with comic books (the direct ancestor of most graphic
novels), either in the industry itself or as a collector, that the form has come to be
so accepted as to appear in the stacks of our local public libraries. he irony
here is made manifold by the fact that !ust fifty years ago the comic book was
blamed for and believed to be the main cause of !uvenile delinquency in the
"nited #tates.
he $%olden Age& of comics was the period !ust prior to and during 'orld
'ar II. 'ith the appearance of (ee )alk*s he +hantom in Ace ,omics -o. .. in
./01, comic books had their first costumed hero. his set the stage for
#uperman and the proliferation of superheroic comics that would follow. In
addition, with war raging in 2urope and coming soon for America, the heroes
versus -azi theme ran wild through comics. 3y the end of ./40, publishers were
selling 56 million copies a month and the industry was worth 708,888,888.
'ith the end of the war in ./46, comics were suddenly in less demand.
his was attributed to two main vectors9 .) hordes of soldiers that had been
buying them no longer were in the service and therefore lost interest in
purchasing them, and 5) the comics themselves no longer had the unifying
theme of $defeating the nazis& to sustain the public:s interest and failed to find
newer, compelling themes in a timely manner.
In an attempt to increase readership, some publishers that had produced
super hero books switched to other genres completely. wo that proved quite
popular were crime and horror, both featuring realistic violence. he remaining
superhero titles continued to struggle, eventually taking a backseat altogether to
crime, western, and romance comics. 3y ./41, )awcett*s western title ;opalong
,assidy was selling an incredible eight million copies (this is !ust an insane
number, never seen before or since in the history of the industry) per month. 3y
comparison, the single highest selling issue of the modern era, #pawn < ., sold
..= million copies in >ay of .//5. ,ompare these two books with the top ten
selling books today9
.) 'olverine <. (.?1,568)
5) 3atman <?.6 (.65,?=?)
0) "ltimates <.8 (...,106)
4) "ltimate #pider@>an <48 (..8,=86)
6) "ltimate #pider@>an <4. (.81,/./)
?) -ew A@>en <.4. (.8.,6.4)
=) Amazing #pider@>an <60 (.8.,414)
1) "ncanny A@>en <454 (.88,5=1)
/) "ltimate A@>en (/1,?=6)
.8) Benom <. (/1,..8)
-ewsarama .
-o comic book today sells in the millions per month, but many sell in the .=8,888
to .88,888 range. he modern market has become much wider, offering
hundreds more titles per month than during the $golden age& and the readership
is spread much more evenly across those titles.
"nfortunately, the public backlash against the new sub!ect matter
portrayed in comic books was severe. Cne of the most important driving forces
behind this upheaval was the psychiatrist )redric 'ertham. During the late
./48s, Dr. 'ertham published several articles critical of the comics industry.
,ombined with skillful manipulation of the media and the ./64 publication of his
book, Seduction of the Innocent, his campaign generated so much public outrage
that it lead to a congressional investigation of the comic book industry. 'ertham
actually said that, $;itler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.
hey get the children much younger ("###IED"# /).F he public outcry
instigated by 'ertham was one of the most important reasons that comics lost
their place in mainstream media.
Gather than accept government censorship, the comic book industry
banded together to form a code for self@policing. he ./64 ,omics ,ode,
adopted by the ,omics >agazine Association of America, established strict
standards for the depiction of crime, authority figures, religion, weapons,
violence, seH, and marriage (,omicartville .). 'hile it allowed the industry to
avoid a confrontation with the government, it was so restricting that it damaged
the quality of stories that could be told. )or the neHt decade, comics would be
almost completely devoted to telling stories of romance and science.
A logical question at this point would be why libraries would ever want to
collect these materials. 3eginning in the ./18s, a combination of changes in
distribution reducing the financial risk to publishers, influence from high quality
foreign publications, and the erosion of the ,omics ,ode allowed by distance in
time from the days of Seduction of the Innocent led to a dramatic improvement in
the kinds and quality of books being produced. In con!unction with this, the
comics industry began a serious push in the publishing of high@quality original
works. he most important of these was probably the +ulitzer winning Maus: A
Survivor s Tale by Art #piegelman that described his father:s eHperiences in a
-azi internment camp.
During this same time period, long time comic publishers, most notably
>arvel and D,, realized (much as Disney had many years earlier) that the comic
book marketplace had a built in re!uvenating aspect to itI every 6 to = years, a
new group of consumers $found& and were attracted to their products. 3oth
companies, and eventually their smaller brethren, began repackaging the best of
their previous comics in the graphic novel format as well as producing new,
original offerings.
he graphic novel turned out to be an economic godsend for the comic
book market as a whole. he materials, in the case of collections of previously
published issues (usually ? to .5 issue storylines), were already paid for in as far
as artists, writers, etc. were concerned. he only costs incurred were those for
printing, not creating, the graphic novels. In the case of new, original work, the
quality of the paper and printing made the graphic novels stand out from the
crowd of monthly comic books and became huge publication $events& in their
own right. he outcome for the comic book publishers was a very serious
increase in their bottom lines and has made the industry as a whole very healthy.
As graphic novels have become more popular and accepted as a
legitimate literary and artistic form, they have become more in demand by the
public and therefore more prevalent in public and school library collections.
his is very eHciting for many in the library profession as graphic novels
seem ideally suited for use in literacy effortsI $Bisual communication is rich,
evocative, and immediate, and transcends barriers that language sometimes
raises. 'hen pictures and words are used together to communicate, the result
can be much greater than either alone could produce (homsen .).&
he comic industry itself is starting to recognize its newfound niche in
libraries and schoolsI they now have a standing yearly panel at the largest comic
convention, the #an Diego ,omic@,on entitled $The Secret Origin of Good
Readers. During this session, $panelists will discuss and show how teachers,
librarians, comic stores, and comic book publishers can work together to bring
comic books into the classroom for use as an innovative and motivating teaching
tool (;ill .).& -ow that the first step, the inclusion of these materials in public and
school libraries, has been taken, (ibrarians and teachers must become familiar
with the elements of this resurgent, but still mostly mysterious genre.
o make full use of a graphic novel collection, a librarian or teacher must
first have some understanding of it. A number of tools eHist to make this easier.
#everal quality websites are available. -o )lying, -o ights and ,omics %et
#erious have good collections of reviews that can help a librarian get started. A
good book about comics can also be useful. #cott >c,loud:s Understanding
Comics is a graphic novel written to describe how the comics format works.
Cne difficulty for librarians and teachers in understanding their graphic
novel collections is that comics are read differently than books. hey are not read
left@to@right, top@to@bottom. Instead, the action flows from panel to panel in a
variety of ways. he illustrations are an integral part of the story, and have their
own rules and conventions. It is necessary to understand the pictures in order to
fully understand the teHt. hey each inform the other, which is one of the
reasons that graphic novels are useful in literacy efforts9
'e, as educators of young and old alike, have always known that
reading is a series of skills9 questioning, visualizing, inferring,
predicting, connecting and responding to name a few. 'ith graphic
novels, the scaffolding necessary to build solid readers is in the
architecture of the genre. he illustrations not only support the teHt,
they are a part of the teHt. #tudents are given conteHt clues within
the subtle and sometime not so subtle eHpressions, symbols and
actions of the characters within the story. Bocabulary is also
supported within the illustrations and teHt. he framework or grid
layout of this art form lends itself perfectly to the predicting
strategies needed to reach higher@level understanding in reading
,ommon conventions in comics may be confusing to those unfamiliar with the
medium. he use of a series of punctuation marks to indicate cursing and or
anger (J<7K), the use of $speed lines& to indicate movement, the convention of
adding a panel that appears to be a non sequitur to add emphasis ($3A-%& to
indicate a loud noise or a frame of one character hitting another over the head
with a giant mallet to denote anger) are all confusing to the casual reader. Cwing
to the early history of the medium as unsophisticated fringe material, most
librarians are at best casual readers of comics
(ibrarians and teachers must also know the group to be served. %raphic
novels have traditionally been seen as useful with reluctant readers, especially
boys ages .5 to .4. 'ith new publications that handle broader topics, the
audience is changing. According to 2llis and ;ighsmith, $the appeal to
adolescent power fantasies remains, but other interest has broadened
considerably. #everal contemporary series appeal to women and girlsL(5/).&
his is not to say that girls don:t want power fantasies, but they might identify
with a different sort of character, a female one, for a start.
(iteracy efforts have traditionally focused not on adolescents, but on
younger students. And some reading eHperts are worried that with most reform
efforts being directed at students in the third grade or lower, another crisis is
being ignored. 2ven as elementary student scores on federal tests are
increasing slightly, high school scores are declining. Cnly about one third of .5th@
graders were reading at a proficient level in 5885, down from 48 percent in .//5.
Adolescent readers face a host of complicated problems, ranging from
general reluctance to pick up a book to aliteracy, an inability to fully grasp the
meaning of words. +roponents suggest that comic books and graphic novels can
help. )or the reluctant reader, they are absorbing. )or the struggling reader or
the reader still learning 2nglish, they offer accessibility9 pictures for conteHt, and
possibly an alternate path into classroom discussions of higher@level teHts. $Eust
getting reluctant adolescents to read @ anything @ can be a boon to their discovery
of the !oy of reading (Geynolds .5).& %raphic novels can help to eHpand
vocabulary, and introduce the ideas of plot, pacing, and sequence.
Another reason, suggested by specialists in reading and literacy, for using
comics to help with adolescent literacy efforts is that comic book reading and
other kinds of light reading may serve as an important bridge from everyday
FconversationalF language to what eHperts term Facademic language (Mrashen
0?).F his view is supported by studies showing that comic book teHts contain
more rare words than ordinary conversation does (;ayes and Ahrens 480), as
well as case histories of readers who credit comic books with providing them with
the linguistic basis for reading more difficult teHts (e.g. >athabane).
It is important to note that graphic novels need not be viewed as replacing
classroom reading materialsI they are !ust as useful as supplements to regular
classroom activities. )or eHample, if a /th grade class is reading 2dith
;amilton*s Mythology, the teacher can assign literature circle groups to read
graphic novels about the more godlike superheroes. #tudents can read books
like Superman For All Seasons, Kingdom Come or selections from The
Sandman library to compare and contrast current envisionings of gods and
demigods with those that make up %reek and Goman mythology.
If a class is reading The !iary "f Anne Fran# and there are students who
may be struggling with the reading, the teacher may assign them to read Maus
instead. Cnce both books are read, the class can compare the realism and
content of both works that are centered on the ;olocaust.
%raphic -ovels can be used in classes other than 2nglish as well. In
order to drive home the point about safe seH or abstinence education, students in
a health class can read $edro and Me, a story about +edro Namora of The %eal
&orld fame, and his life with AID# and the education programs he participated in
himself. hese are !ust a few of the possible uses of graphic novels found in
school libraries .
+ublic libraries can serve their patrons by helping them form connections
with other organizations and individuals with similar interests. A librarian that has
knowledge of local events about comicsI local comic publishers, artists, or
writersI fan websites, and other online forums can help their patrons make these
connections. Aspiring young artists may become interested in drawing comics.
'riters may get interested in scripting them. he library can support these efforts
by sponsoring workshops, again through the librarian:s knowledge of the local
art, writing, and publishing world.
'ith the introduction of the 'orld 'ide 'eb, comics have gone online. o
a librarian with the slightest knowledge of web publishing and free web server
providers, the possibilities are enticing. It is possible to run a series of workshops
introducing cartoonists to online publishing. And because many web comics are
free, the library can easily develop an online comic collection by adding a page of
links to their site.
he eHciting thing for a librarian with a graphic novel collection is the
combination of the collection:s possibilities and its popularity. 'ith a bit of
research and work on the part of the librarian, the collection could become the
genesis for a colorful and popular children:s and young adult literacy program.
And the best part is the participants won:t even know its overtly educational,
they:ll !ust think its funO

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