Friday, August 7, 2009

Give Comics a Chance!

I’m a late bloomer when it comes to comics.

It was not until I got into publishing and heard Seymour Simon, the esteemed nonfiction writer for children, and Avi, the Newbery medalist, and, more recently, Jennifer Holm (a Newbery Honor author and also a co-creator of the Babymouse graphic novels series with her artist brother Matthew) all talk about how they became readers because of comic books that I started to give comics more credence.

I may be biased, but I believe that it was Art Spiegelman’s MAUS—his memoir of the Holocaust rendered as a graphic novel that won a special Pulitzer Prize—that finally won the form widespread respect among American adults. Even though Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, who is the art editor of the New Yorker, had been creating and editing groundbreaking comics in their publication RAW, their approach to featuring such a haunting and horrifying topic as the extermination of Jews during WWII in such an original way captured the imagination and attention of readers with even the most conservative definition of “the book.”

I suppose I’m making the case to you, the adult reader, so that you will consider accepting the idea of the young people in your life reading comics. I believe that comics are unique in their appeal to kids who don’t perceive themselves as readers. Because of their highly visual presentation, comics offer readers a myriad of additional clues about what's happening on the page, comics can more easily introduce the idea of sarcasm and wit (by creating a joke in the interplay between text and pictures), and they can begin to build a sense of confidence in readers who experience a mastery of what they are reading, often for the first time.

Adventures in Cartooning is a terrific book for many reasons, not least of which it demonstrates how easy a medium it is to work in but also how hard it is to be really good at comics. As with so many disciplines, we learn how hard they are to master when we begin to work on them ourselves. I had a new appreciation for ballet dancers after I took ballet lessons. I still listen in awe to Van Cliburn because even after 10 years of piano study, I never came close to the way he translated his passion and mastery to the keyboard.

In the coming weeks and months, you’ll be hearing more about comics here, but in the meantime, here are some tips and titles from Mark Siegel, a wonderful author-artist in his own right. He started a comics imprint where he publishes high-quality books like Adventures in Cartooning, and his Web site offers a kind of syllabus in helping the novice get started with comics.

So let’s give comics a chance! They can turn our young people into readers, and give them more opportunities to explore their own artistic side.

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