James Kochalka

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…

New to Comics? New Comics For You! 8/5/09

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

Here’s some brand new stuff that came out last week 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.

Frankenstein’s Womb – $6.99
By Warren Ellis & Marek Oleksicki
48 pages; published by Avatar Press; available at Amazon.com

1816 was called “The Year Without A Summer.” In the weird darkness of that July’s volcanic winter, Mary Wolfestonecraft Godwin began writing Frankenstein on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. But that is not where Frankenstein began. It began a few months earlier when, en route through Germany to Switzerland, Mary, her future husband Percy Shelley, and her stepsister Clair Clairmont approached a strange castle. Castle Frankenstein, some one hundred years earlier, had been home to Johann Conrad Dippel, whose experiments included the independent invention of nitroglycerin, a distillation of the elixir of life – and the transfer of a live soul into an awful accretion of human body parts! Mary never spoke of having entered the real Castle Frankenstein, stark on its hilltop south of Darmstadt. But she did. And she was never the same again – because something was haunting that tower, and Mary met it there.

Fear, death, and alchemy – the modern age is created here, in lost moments in a ruined castle on a day never recorded. The newest addition to Warren Ellis’ Apparat line of original graphic novels has arrived! Following up the huge successes of Crecy and Aetheric Mechanics, Ellis turns his spark of mad genius to bring us a fantastical tale in this all-new original graphic novel illustrated in atmospheric perfection by newcomer Marek Oleksicki.

Warren Ellis is kind of disturbed. In this case, it should be a good thing. Here’s a preview.

The Gigantic Robot – $16.95
By Tom Gauld
32 pages; published by Buenaventura Press; available at Amazon.com

“A perfect little book.” – Daniel Clowes
A wry fable concerning the production of an impressive secret weapon whose promise goes unfulfilled. Elegant, meticulous and concise in both word and drawing, Gauld’s signature style graces the pages of this silver-cover board book.

This 8.25 x 10.5 inch board book format is a bit unconventional but this looks too delightful to pass up. There are pictures of the book, interior pages, and other goodies to look at on Tom Gauld’s Flickr account. (I love the mock Google ads he does at the end.) You can also order this straight from the artist’s site, CabanonPress.com.

Abstract Comics: The Anthology – $39.99
Edited by Andrei Molotiu
232 pages; published by Fantagraphics Books; available at Amazon.com

Abstract comics? Don’t all comics tell stories? How can a comic be abstract? Well, as it happens, beginning with the experiments of Saul Steinberg, through some of the more psychedelic creations of R. Crumb and Victor Moscoso, and with increasing frequency in recent years, cartoonists and other artists have played with the possibility of comics whose panels contain little to no representational imagery, and which tell no stories other than those that result from the transformation and interaction of shapes across the layout of a comic page. Reduced to the most basic elements of comics — the panel grid, brushstrokes, and sometimes colors — abstract comics highlight the formal mechanisms that underlie all comics, such as the graphic dynamism that leads the eye (and the mind) from panel to panel or the aesthetically rich interplay between sequentiality and page layout.

Abstract Comics, edited by Andrei Molotiu, an art historian as well as one of the best-known contemporary abstract-comic creators, is the first collection devoted to this budding genre. It gathers the best abstract comics so far created, including early experiments in the form by cartoonists primarily known for other types of comics, such as Gary Panter, Patrick McDonnell, or Lewis Trondheim, and pieces by little-known pioneers such as Benoit Joly, Bill Boichel and Jeff Zenick, as well as by recent creators who have devoted a good part of their output to perfecting the form, such as Ibn al Rabin, Billy Mavreas, Mark Staff Brandl, and many others. It also features first attempts, commissioned specifically for this anthology, by well-known cartoonists such as James Kochalka, J.R. Williams and Warren Craghead. Comprehensive in scope, Abstract Comics gathers work not only from North America, but also from France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, showing the rise in popularity of the genre to be a true international phenomenon. In the process, the anthology highlights the wide variety of approaches taken to the combination of abstraction and sequential art — approaches resulting in work that is not only graphically bold, but also often proves to be surprisingly humorous or emotionally disturbing.

Complete list of contributors (in order of appearance): R. Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Spyros Horemis, Jeff Zenick, Bill Shut, Patrick McDonnell, Mark Badger, Benoit Joly, Bill Boichel, Gary Panter, Damien Jay, Ibn al Rabin, Lewis Trondheim, Andy Bleck, Mark Staff Brandl, Andrei Molotiu, Anders Pearson, Derik Badman, Grant Thomas, Casey Camp, Henrik Rehr, James Kochalka, John Hankiewicz, Mike Getsiv, J.R. Williams, Blaise Larmee, Warren Craghead III, Janusz Jaworski, Richard Hahn, Geoff Grogan, Panayiotis Terzis, Mark Gonyea, Greg Shaw, Alexey Sokolin, Jason Overby, Bruno Schaub, Draw, Jason T. Miles, Elijah Brubaker, Noah Berlatsky, Tim Gaze, troylloyd, Billy Mavreas

Even more unconventional and on the more avant-garde side of things. More proof that comics are truly an art form. They can be just as weird, surreal, absurd, artistic, expressive and transcendent as any other medium. Fantagraphics has put up a Flickr slideshow of pages from the book. They also have a 20-page preview (PDF). I dare you to try this.

Pax Romana – $14.99
By Jonathan Hickman
136 pages; published by Image Comics; available at Amazon.com

In 2045, as Islam has overrun Europe and the West openly shuns monotheism, the Vatican funded, CERN Laboratories ‘discover’ that time travel is possible. The Pope orders the creation of a private army, and led by a few handpicked Cardinals and the finest graduates of selected war colleges, they travel back in time to 312AD – the reign of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. Upon arrival, conflicting agendas, ideological differences, and personal greed see grand plans unravel.

Pax Romana is the tale of 5,000 men sent on an impossible mission to change the past and save the future. At the end of the world, will they succeed, or will they fail? This politically driven sci-fi epic comes from the creator of the hit Nightly News! Collects the entire Pax Romana series with never-before-seen back matter!

“Back matter”? Ew, what’s that? Is it like back fat? No, back matter is a term that someone, I think Warren Ellis (the disturbed writer mentioned above), came up with to describe exclusive content semi-equivalent to DVD extras but for comic books. Anyway, this is significantly more conventional after Abstract Comics, so if you’re not into that, some time traveling sci-fi adventure is probably more your speed. Although Jonathan Hickman doesn’t usually take the easy way out. In fact, he might be a bit crazy, too. Fortunately crazy is pretty entertaining if you don’t have to live with it. Here’s a preview of the first four pages.

Kaleidoscope: A Mr. Toast Book – $10.00
By Dan Goodsell
64 pages; published by Imaginary World Comics; available at Amazon.com

Kaleidoscope is a visual tour of the World of Mr Toast. No story, just a potpourri of comics, photographs, watercolors and paintings. Inside you will find humor and fun with Mr Toast and his pals, Joe the Egg, Shaky Bacon and Clem Lemon. Great for kids and adults of all ages.

This looks absolutely adorable and hilarious all at once. At the publisher’s link above, you’ll find some preview pages, and you’ll also be able to buy it for a few dollars less. So simple as to be brilliant.

Kind of a bizarre mix of comics this week, but I like it. I hope you find something you like, too!