By Lauren Apfel
My eleven-year-old son reads a lot, but for the past year and a half he’s only been reading comics. Or graphic novels. Or manga. I’m not 100% sure about the slivers of difference between these genres, but I do know that they are all comprised, mainly, of cartoons and speech bubbles and are woefully lacking in full pages of prose. The part of me that has a PhD in classical literature, the part that is never without a novel or work of non-fiction of her own on the go, turns my nose up at my son’s comics, considering them, as I do, little more than glorified picture books. And yet, and yet, I understand that’s not entirely fair.
My son has argued well for his cause, it’s one about which he is passionate. We often find ourselves in bookstores, deadlocked, me beckoning him toward the young adult section, him standing firm and wide-eyed in front of the graphic novels. His claim is that comics are literature or close enough and he has a leg to stand on here, because it’s not that he hasn’t read what I would call “real” books in the past. Before he became obsessed with Pokemon and discovered the wonder of Japanese animated texts such as Naruto and Tokyo Ghoul (posters of which adorn his walls), he had a flare for dystopic fiction. He plowed through the Hunger Games set and the Maze Runners and while, personally, I couldn’t relate to his taste, I still counted these as forays into genuine literature (small “l”).
Recently, when it was becoming clear his reading selection wasn’t just a phase, I said I would take a look at one of his graphic novels in order to educate myself. He chose Watchmen and, as I perused it semi-carefully, I had to admit that it does contain many of the rudiments of any novel: plot, backstory, dialogue, introspection. So too I acknowledge that what the shorter comics and manga lack in length they tend to make up for by being part of an endlessly ongoing series. Batman, for example, has been around since 1939 and sees a new, and interconnected, edition on the newsstand every couple of weeks. Naruto has 72 volumes.
The crux of our argument, then, boils down to this: what does one miss by reading without whole, adjacent paragraphs? By reading text that is always couched in pictures? My son says the pictures are part of the story, that he studies them and interprets them the way he would additional words. This makes sense, especially for children who have been raised to process narrative in a variety of formats. But my view, biased as it is towards the left brain, is that language is sui generis. Surely the intricacies of plot, emotion, and inner thought that words alone can convey, the delicate nuances delivered by metaphor and other figures of speech, are inevitably lost when graphics take their place. And if the pictures are already there for you, what work is left to the imagination?
Reading is reading. Literacy is literacy. This is definitely one school of thought: that we should encourage our kids to love books in all shapes and forms, without circumscribing the type of book they should love. Without foisting our own opinions onto the matter or using their choice of material as a gauge of their intelligence or commitment. Marjorie Ingall makes a good case for this philosophy in Mamaleh Knows Best, contextualizing it in the Jewish parenting tradition whereby we all think our kids are “little geniuses” who read too well for picture books. “I’m over parents rolling their eyes at graphic novels as ‘not really books,’” she writes, because the focus should be on making reading enjoyable—not on how many words there are on a page.
I see Ingall’s point, I absolutely do. But I also worry that laziness might be playing a role here and that’s a motivation I’m less happy to enable. Comics are simply easier to read than other kinds of books, they demand less attention, and my suspicion is they become appealing for that very reason. This is why hybrid novels such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid are so popular: the chunks of prose are reassuringly, regularly broken up by fun and distracting illustrations. Cartoons that make the plot go faster, the pages turn more quickly. While this is a fine way to ease early or reluctant readers into better habits, I’m not so sure the same is true for older kids. In an age of instant gratification, we are all losing the ability to focus on longer texts, and that’s worrisome.
My son’s keen interest in comic books is heartening —I love the meticulously organized stacks on his desk, the way he is always plotting for the next addition to his library (as opposed to the next download on his iPad)—and I realize my accusations of laziness aren’t wholly grounded. He spent his holiday money, after all, buying volumes one and two of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, which is hardly a frivolous read.
I suppose it’s the exclusivity that is giving me pause, the fact that he is only interested, right now, in books with pictures. And the idea that because he is receptive to reading—and has been a well-rounded, though phasal, reader in the past—he would benefit greatly from a mixture of genres: text-based literature in addition to his graphic novels. He’s at a formative moment in his life, in his academic and emotional development. I want him to be reading things that will challenge him, force him to think deeply and critically, that will help him evolve. Isn’t this what reading is for? Do the Bam, Wham, Pow! of his comic books have such power?
Do you have a kid who only reads, or would only read, comics/graphic novels? I’d love your take on this topic—and what your experience has been.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is an avid reader of modern fiction, memoir, and parenting literature; she has never been a fan of comics. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.