It is often said that comics can be a stepping stone to reading, and in many ways it’s true. Comics can be vivid, attractive and easy to read. The interpretation of drawings comes intuitively to most children, especially to those who find large blocks of text off-putting. In many cases “reluctant readers” are simply children that find it easier to learn visually than linguistically. However, this comfortable idea does a disservice to comics, allowing critics to retain the familiar idea that they’re subservient to prose: a step down in terms of literary merit, only worth using as a step up to the “real thing”.
The truth is that comics are nothing more or less than fusion of words and images with which any story of any level of complexity and merit can be told. They have their own rich language with limitless potential, so fully understanding them requires a special hybrid of visual and textual literacy that hasn’t yet entered into education.
One step on from colourful comics for children and pulpy comics for teenagers, there’s a world of visual acuity to be discovered! In this world, subtleties of expression, quality of pose and gesture, complexity of metaphoric imagery, attention to visual detail, and the narrative flow of text and image come together to create an visual experience on a level with the most challenging of prose. Many of the skills that make a great novel are combined with many of the skills that make a great painting (and more besides!) when making a great comic.
Sadly, this experience remains unimagined by the vast majority of adults in the UK, who may have only learned to appreciate linguistic quality, never how to appreciate visual quality. Even if you handed them a masterpiece of comic storytelling, the difference between it and a kid’s comic would be just as incomprehensible as the difference between Twilight and Dickens would be to someone who had only just learned primary-level English.
As a culture, we’re immersed in images (television, film, internet, video games, advertising), yet compulsory art education teaches only the rudiments of artistic skill, vocational art is looked down upon as an untenable career option, and modern art has become a strange field in which skill and value have a dubious relationship. Most people in the UK are adrift in a sea of images with no boat and no chart.
Is it any wonder that children see the prose thrust on them by education as irrelevant to their lives? Is it any wonder that the visual entertainment they turn to is often crude, and often looked down upon by adults?
Reading kid’s comics can certainly be a bridge to prose, but more than that, it can be a bridge to a visually literate culture that is capable of properly understanding itself.