Francoise Mouly

How do you get people to read comics when people don’t know how to read comics?

Photo by Sarah Shatz (Click for Toon Books blog)

I’ve recently been struck with the reality that some people really and truly don’t know how to read comics. This is a real and true hurdle for plenty of people in accepting and even trying a comic book or graphic novel.

For people like me who feel we were born holding a copy of Amazing Spider-Man, it’s hard to believe. But this shouldn’t be dismissed as nonsense. It doesn’t mean the people having trouble reading them are stupid. In fact, I think scoffing this reason is the equivalent of calling comics simple kids stuff for dummies.

But both of these assumptions are fallacies. From my experience, usually the struggling reader is a big book reader and they’re usually quite bright. They simply haven’t had much if any experience with the language of comics.

And comics are far from simple. They are a language all their own, and just like anything else, it takes time to learn the language. There’s more going on than just looking at little cartoon drawings and reading the words. The words and images play off each other and interact with each other, and other images on the page, and the reader, in a way unlike any other medium. Just as we must learn how to read non-verbal cues in face-to-face conversations with people, there are non-word cues that readers must learn to incorporate into the entire message. The artwork is doing much more than just providing a visual representation of the words. Frequently they’re providing information not found in the text, information about how the artist interprets and feels about that the text or the world that’s been created, visual clues about how characters feel, information about environment and setting, aesthetic information that informs tone or mood, as well as stylistic choices that reflect the artist and the prism through which he sees the world. And there’s even more than that. In every panel.

That’s a lot of work. The brain can figure all or most of it out, but it can take time to adjust to receiving information in a new way.

The best way to get used to it is to read comics at a young age when we’re still extremely adaptable. One of the best publishers for first time and young readers is Toon Books. I linked to them yesterday in my Comics News Roundup, but I’m sure it’s easy to miss. I also wanted to feature this video they have on their front page. It’s narrated by Editorial Director Françoise Mouly (so prepare your ears for a French accent). She does a great summary of what they’re about and also has some great information on how comics are great for kids just learning to read.

Toon Books has their books split up into three levels: Grades K-1, Grades 1-2 and Grades 2-3. But to be honest, they’re so delightful and charming that grown-up readers will probably get a smile from reading them too. There’s a reason many of their books, like Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith, Benny and Penny by Geoffrey Hayes, and Stinky by Eleanor Davis, have received awards, made best-of lists, and gotten other praise and recognition. There’s also a teacher’s guide with lesson plans, an online literacy tool, and other free resources for the classroom.

A lot of publishers are adding material for new readers to their catalog. Top Shelf Productions has the Kids Club with the adorable Owly by Andy Runton (who has a great teaching section on his site), Johnny Boo by James Kochalka and more coming in 2011. Traditional book publishers have also opened up to this. Scholastic Books now has the Graphix imprint, which has published material for slightly older readers (Grades 5-7) like Smile and Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitter’s Club series of adaptations by Raina Telgemeier. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More to come, for sure.

But what about older people who haven’t learned how to read comics? Like I said, more to come…

LA Comics News Roundup: publishers kickstart 2011

All the news that’s fit to shove through internet tubes. Here’s the world of comic books and graphic novels in LA and beyond over the last week or so, with some commentary:

= Boom! Studios Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon gets the prestigious Comics Reporter Holiday Interview treatment, talking about the culture and climate of the LA-based publisher and his journey to his current position. Read it

= Silver Lake store Secret Headquarters was named Bookstore of the Week by the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy. More acclaim for a shop that in 2008 was named one of the World’s 10 Best Bookstores by The Guardian. The LA Times article also gives mention to local LA artists Martin Cendreda (Catch Me If You Can) and Sammy Harkham (Crickets). Meanwhile, I have somehow still not checked out this store. Read it

= The ever-expanding Comic International: San Diego could add a balloon parade through downtown San Diego to kick off the festivities. City Council District 4 President Tony Young, a self-proclaimed comic book collector and fan, floated the idea in his New Years address and expanded on the idea in an interview. Read it

= Comics industry numbers from Diamond Comic Distributors, the primary method comics publishers get their comics and graphic novels to comic book stores and other outlets, has released their reports on 2010 and as expected print comics took a hit. “Annual sales of comic books, graphic novels, and magazines to the comic book specialty market declined slightly in 2010, down 3.5% from 2009.” Comics industry number-cruncher John Jackson Miller estimates that the industry generated $415 million last year. The comic shop market hit a peak of $437 million in 2008. However, he counters this gloom with data showing the fourth quarter of 2010 ending 2% up from fourth quarter 2009 due to graphic novel sales. This supports some cautious optimism from some as early signs of a turnaround. Read it: part 1, part 2, part 3 (more…)

New Graphic Novels, Comic Books for You – 11/4

Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?

Here’s some brand new stuff that came out the week of November 4 that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.

Disclaimer: For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.

The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics – $40.00
Edited by Art Spiegelman & Françoise Mouly
352 pages; published by Abrams ComicArts; available at Amazon.com

The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics is an unprecedented collection of the greatest comics for children, artfully compiled by two of the best-known creators in publishing and the field of comics–Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly.

This treasury created for young readers focuses on comic books, not strips, and contains humorous stories that range from a single-page to eight or even twenty-two pages, each complete and self-contained. The comics have been culled from the Golden Age of comic books, roughly the 1940s through the early 1960s, and feature the best examples of works by such renowned artists and writers as Carl Barks, John Stanley, Sheldon Mayer, Walt Kelly, Basil Wolverton, and George Carlson, among many, many others.

Organizing the book into five categories (Hey, Kids!; Funny Animals; Fantasyland; Story Time!; and Wacky & Weird), Spiegelman and Mouly use their expertise in the area of comics to frame each category with an introductory essay, and provide brief biographies of the artists. The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics is essential reading for kids of all ages.

Great for kids, and the supplemental essays and historical context should make this entertaining for parents, too. The artists mentioned in the blurb were masters and are still huge influences to modern comic and graphic artists. And it’s sturdy enough for repeated reading. The publisher link above includes a great preview that shows just how charming and delightful this stuff will be to experience. Lots of fun!

Donald Duck and Friends #347 – $2.99
By Fausto Vitaliano & Andrea Freccero
32 pages; published by Boom! Kids

The Quack is back in this first BOOM! Kids issue! He’s no double “o” seven, he’s Double Duck! Donald shows us his dashing, adventurous side as a secret agent on a mission to stop a dangerous ice-melting machine and save the world from rising oceans! This is a Donald Duck like you’ve never seen! A brand new start at a brand new company for one of the world’s most iconic characters and longest-lived, most-published comic book series!

Speaking of those influential artists, you can pretty much draw a direct line from Carl Barks to this new issue (translated from the original Italian edition). Another great comic for kids. Here’s a 5-page preview.

Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1: The Trial of Sherlock Holmes – $24.99
By Leah Moore, John Reppion & Aaron Campbell
168 pages; published by Dynamite Entertainment; available at Amazon.com

Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective Sherlock Holmes returns in all-new adventures! Sherlock finds himself involved in a mystery that has him fighting for his very life and Watson putting the pieces together to either save his friend or condemn him! Written by Leah Moore and John Reppion with reverence and a modern edge, artist Aaron Campbell completes the Victorian mood under the striking and iconic John Cassaday covers. Also contains bonus material such as script pages, annotations, a cover gallery, and a complete Sherlock Holmes short story by Arthur Conan Doyle with new illustrations.

I’ve been looking forward to this. It’s supposed to be a pretty faithful take on Sherlock Holmes. There’s a 10-page preview at the publisher link above.

Like A Dog – $22.99
By Zak Sally
128 pages; published by Fantagraphics Books; available at Amazon.com

One man’s heartfelt and irreverent record of his time on this rock, Zak Sally’s unflinchingly veracious book, Like a Dog, is both direct and oblique, which we find rather miraculous considering the messy and murky waters of human experience it manages to navigate. Like a Dog is among the few comic book testimonials burdened by the yen to understand and articulate the mundane and the magnificent. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing and crying as you claw your way through each hard fought page!

Of all of Sally’s creative pursuits (including a career in music spanning 15+ years), Like a Dog is the one he’s been working a lifetime toward. This hardcover book collects the best of his acclaimed short stories from the past 15 years, created in between band tours and recording sessions, published in his Eisner-nominated self-published seriesRecidivist (the first 2 issues of which are reprinted here in their entirety) and in publications like MomeThe DramaYour FleshDirty Stories, and more.

Like a Dog spotlights Sally’s uncanny ability to create emotional havoc out of claustrophobic images, situations and dialogue. Stories like “Don’t Move,” “The War Back Home,” and “Two Idiot Brothers” share little in common on the surface but are united by Sally’s forbidding style, creating a sense of dread that permeates almost every page.

Sally also turns his eye towards nonfiction in Like a Dog, including “At the Scaffold,” the story of the imprisonment and trial of Fyodor Dostoyevsky for allegedly subversive behavior, and “The Man Who Killed Wally Wood,” a story about Sally’s brush with a former publisher of the legendary comic artist (who, contrary to the title of this strip, took his own life after a long battle with alcoholism). It also includes two collaborations: “Dread,” written by NEA Fellowship recipient, Edgar Award finalist, and O. Henry Award winning author Brian Evenson (Altmann’s Tongue); and “River Deep, Mountain High,” co-created with fellow cartoonist Chris Cilla.

Like a Dog also includes extensive “liner notes” by the artist, previously unpublished material, an introduction by John Porcellino (King Cat), and other surprises.

I really loved Zak Sally’s Sammy The Mouse, so it sounds like I have a good reason to buy this. And so do you. To give you an idea of what’s in store, there’s a neat Flickr video of someone flipping through the book, which serves as a de facto preview of sorts, and there’s also a 10-page preview as a PDF file.

Stumptown #1 – $3.99
By Greg Rucka & Matthew Southworth
40 pages; published by Oni Press

Superstar writer Greg Rucka (WHITEOUT, DETECTIVE COMICS) embarks on his first creator-owned series since the Eisner Award-winning QUEEN & COUNTRY!

Dex is the proprietor of Stumptown Investigations, and a fairly talented P.I. Unfortunately, she’s less adept at throwing dice than solving cases. Her recent streak has left her beyond broke—she’s into the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast for 18 large. But maybe Dex’s luck is about to change. Sue-Lynne, head of the Wind Coast’s casino operation, will clear Dex’ debt if she can locate Sue-Lynne’s missing granddaughter. But is this job Dex’s way out of the hole or a shove down one much much deeper?

I’ve been seeing some good reviews for this. Looks like really nice work! Here’s a 4-page preview. And while it hasn’t officially launched yet, here’s a website for the series.

Burn – $9.99
By Camilla D’Errico & Scott Sanders
160 pages; published by Simon & Schuster’s Simon Pulse; available at Amazon.com

Burn was once human.

He also had a family and friends, until a metallic angel of death took everything from him. This mechanical monster, Shoftiel, was one of many living machines made to help humanity that revolted and declared war on their creators. It tore through Burn’s home and wreaked havoc on his city until the buildings collapsed, crashing down upon them.

Emerging from the rubble, Burn and Shoftiel discover their once separate bodies have become one — neither human nor machine, but a freak union of both. Internally their minds are caught in a raging battle for control. Just as mankind must struggle against the sentients for survival, Burn must find the strength to overcome Shoftiel’s genocidal programming to retain whatever’s left of his humanity.

Here’s a 5-page preview (you have to click through a bunch of “who cares” before you get to the actual story).