You could call it a clash of titans, to borrow a phrase. In just one month, one American organization criticized superheroes as bad role models for boys, while a Canadian group promoted the use of comics and graphic novels to increase literacy among them.
While the value or harm of comic books has been debated for decades, the genre has grown in acceptance among librarians and educators, and some libraries now host large collections of graphic novels, Japanese manga, and plain old American comics. The comics were once hidden behind the textbooks; now they may be handed out by the teacher.
In July, the Canadian Council on Learning published a report titled, “More Than Just Funny Books: Comics and Prose Literacy for Boys.” It cited research showing boys lagging behind girls in several indices of reading capability; in short, boys read less and enjoy it less. Part of the problem, CCL claimed, is the tastes of the librarians.
“Boys are much more likely [than girls] to enjoy reading science and nonfiction books, informational texts, and ‘how-to’ manuals,” the authors wrote. “They are also more likely to enjoy fantasy, adventure stories, and stories that are scary or ‘gross’ … [yet] these genres and media are generally underrepresented or even unavailable in school libraries, a reflection of the views of teachers and librarians who judge such material inappropriate.”
The state’s public libraries are picking up the slack. A sampling of online catalogs in larger North Carolina cities uncovers hundreds of titles, everything from books about cartooning to Asian teen romance comics and educational titles like The Manga Guide to Calculus. Enter the term “manga” at the website for the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, and over 600 entries come up in this one category of comics.
“A solid quarter to third of what I circulate is graphic novels,” said Meg Harrison, the teen services coordinator for the Forsyth County Library. “Most of my readers are boys. If it’s in manga or comic book format, they don’t care if it’s targeted for girls — they’ll read it.”
Manga is the big-eyed cartoon style developed in postwar Japan. English translations are often bound right-to-left like the Japanese originals, with kanji characters and Japanese names surrounding Caucasian-featured characters. While some include the clichéd elements of robots, dinosaurs and samurai — don’t miss Manga Claus: The Sword of Kringle — a large segment of the genre is not only aimed at girls, but also drawn by female cartoonists.
Apparently, American males don’t care. Margaret Miles, the youth services librarian for New Hanover County Library, said their collection of comics is oriented toward boys. “We’ve tried several of the shojo manga for the girls,” she said, “but the only one that has been very popular is the Fruits Basket series, and I think that’s crossover readership as well.” Awkwardly translated titles are not uncommon; it really is called Fruits Basket, and it shares shelf space with Bleach, Tokyo Mew Mews, and Beauty is the Beast.
Familiar American comics are there in smaller numbers. Miles said that Marvel “has done some great adaptations for the younger audiences.” The New Hanover libraries had to add classic superheroes to their teen section because the anthologies in the general collection “were being checked out and read almost exclusively by adults or elementary school students.”
The latter group is a concern to some. Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts warned the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in August that popular media only gives boys two choices for role models — the slacker and the superhero. While the slacker’s antisocial behavior is played for laughs, Lamb said, the modern movie superhero promotes a distorted view of masculinity: all sarcasm, aggression, and exploitation of women.
When reached by Carolina Journal, Lamb referred to her blog, Packaging Boyhood, which explained her concern was not over print comics but their video reinterpretations. Social justice themes often are lost when characters are translated for the big screen, she said. The old-style comic book characters “were heroes boys could look up to and learn from because outside of their costumes, they were people with real problems and many vulnerabilities,” she told the APA gathering.
Melissa S. Miller at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill might disagree. Miller is a professor of special education with an interest in reading remediation. She and a colleague recently completed two studies teaching science classes to at-risk students, using graphic novels to supplement traditional textbooks. The comics featured “Max Axiom, Super Scientist” a cool, shaven African-American with shades and a capelike lab coat.
Miller said the character drew the interest of both fourth graders and high school students and gave the boys a new vision of the future. “When we did interviews, all the boys talked about how they thought they could be scientists one day, because this character was a scientist,” she said.
“Textbooks can be so overwhelming,” Miller said. “This was a very effective approach to dealing with this population of kids. It doesn’t look like work, it looks like fun, and they could all read the same book and keep up with their classmates,” she added. “It was not a replacement for their curriculum, it was an enhancement.”
While the girls showed little difference in their actual performance and their attitude toward the subject, Miller said, the boys displayed a marked improvement. “Quite honestly, all the teachers loved it,” she concluded.
However, the genre’s penetration into the schools is mixed. Jeff Jones, the media center specialist at Charlotte’s Independence High School, said there are “50 or 60 books” in the graphic novel collection. “The same people check out a lot of them, but not a lot of different people,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just for free reading [and] entertainment.”
But Allen Kromer, media coordinator at A.C. Reynolds High School in Asheville, had a different take. “We actually have a fairly extensive collection,” he said. “I think our instructors relish the fact that there’s stuff down here the kids will read. It’s significantly boosted circulation.”
He said that some teachers are investigating the use of graphic novels in their classrooms — including his wife, a civics teacher. “One of the supplemental components of our civics curriculum includes a graphic novel dealing with the Constitution and legal processes,” he said.
Hal Young is a contributor to Carolina Journal.