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Comics as Teachers

Why Read Comics?

Comic books play an important role in literature and literacy. Not that anyone should need a reason, but here are some fascinating facts to consider:

  • The presence of comics in libraries increases library use 82% with a 30% increase in circulation of non-comic material.
  • Comic books introduce more “rare words per 1000” than adult books. Comics introduce kids to twice as many words as an average children’s book and 5x as many words as the average child-adult conversation. 
  • Comic book reading kids have better vocabulary and understanding of verb tenses.
  • The country with the highest proportion of comic book reading students (Finland ~60%) has highest literacy rate, as well as highest library usage.
  • Comic books are a gateway to other books.


Years ago, I was watching a documentary on the history of comics on the History Channel called Heroes Unmasked. There was a bit in there about some of the writers’ motivations and why they chose to write the stories they did. There was a comment there that always stuck with me. Writer and editor, Dennis O’Neil said, “…My theory was that it was probably too late for my generation, but maybe you get a real smart 12-year-old and get him thinking about racism…”

I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years and have watched learners struggle with new concepts and come to conclusions not just based on what their parents think, but in response to the society and culture around them. Stan Lee would talk about writing stories where the heroes were fighting Hitler before the U.S. entered the war. They got hate mail for it. I’ve received hate mail myself from students and parents who claim I’m indoctrinating kids when I ask them to support their assertions with facts and sources. I get these messages from students who lean on either side of the political spectrum. The pushback on unverified claims themselves make people uncomfortable. I’m willing to take on that kind of criticism if it means that kids are being asked to support their ideas using the information and facts around them. Teaching students to think for themselves is now considered a subversive act!

With comics, ideas and perspectives can be introduced that prompt thinking and discussion. X-Men informed by views on social justice because I could clearly see the metaphors embedded in those books. The writers didn’t bash you over the head with the message, the perspectives were embedded in the stories. The discrimination against marginalized communities didn’t make any sense to me. I started seeing the value in seeking out diverse perspectives and trying to understand a point of view from people who weren’t like me. Representation matters so much that groups hold onto those stories where they see themselves and become inspired to be a part the culture in ways they hadn’t thought possible.

There aren’t a lot of references to people with chronic conditions in comics. Oracle is probably one of the most well-known examples, but I wanted to make something where the person living with those struggles was something that was integral to the story. The struggle is what’s important and seeing how people face and cope with those struggles is something I want to continue to share and explore. I hope to inspire people to one, look past their own limitations and find ways to either overcome them or work around them if not use them to their advantage; and two, I want people to see that there are millions of people out there who are facing struggles that we can’t always see, and representation through literature leads to greater understanding and empathy.

Getting my back slapped because it’s a crazy fun thing, right?!

There are so many things embedded in our culture that make it harder for some. For instance, the number of men who slap people on the back as a form of greeting, acknowledgement, camaraderie is more than most have likely thought of. I’m always mindful of it. The worst example was when I was being honored with Minnesota Teacher of the Year Finalists at a Twins game. We were out on the field being introduced. I didn’t bring my cane, I went out to stand with the group and the mascot being all fun and crazy came up behind me and started hitting me on my shoulders. The pain was intense. It was all I could do to play along and not make a scene. My metal plate over my clavicle, my back weakened from nerve damage and recovery made me so angry that I wanted to lash out. I didn’t. There are a lot of us who just put up with the additional pain to make others more comfortable. Why do we think that putting our hands on people is somehow acceptable and welcome?

So, to go back to Dennis O’Neil’s comment, it is probably too late for all the office bros out there who love to punch shoulders and slap on the back, but maybe if I can get some representation in front of some smart kids, then maybe we can make some progress forward. It helps that Dolorem is a kick-ass book with a whole lot of action and supernatural elements as well!


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