Owly

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…

Kids Comics: still a struggle but worth the fight

The general consensus among mainstream comic book publishers is that comics aimed at kids, or all-ages comics, don’t sell. And sadly, they’re usually right.

Take for example the apparent cancellation of the endlessly charming Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee. Even an impending big Hollywood movie of Thor couldn’t generate enough interest to sustain the series past eight issues. Why? Maybe it’s because there are also about four other comics starring Thor or some Thor-like character and who can keep them straight? Maybe it’s because too many comic book stores cater to their established audience base of young-ish to older adults who aren’t interested in an all-ages comic book no matter how much praise and acclaim it gets.

So kids comics are doomed, right?

Not quite. Fortunately a growing number of comics stores actually do have enough business savvy to diversify their customer base. In support of this, Diamond Comics, the primary distributor for comics shops, has been amping up their KidsComics.com website, now with a handy-dandy order form kids and parents can print out to make sure their local store orders what they want.

And more effectively, and unlike ten or more years ago, there are now other ways for comics to find their audience. As examples, walk into a book store and see how long it takes you to stumble over a display of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Granted, they technically aren’t comic books (or graphic novels), but often not far from away are copies of Bone by Jeff Smith, Owly by Andy Runton, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz adaptation by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, The Muppet Show Comic Book by Langridge himself, and lots more. And they’ve all been selling very well. Yes even the Twilight graphic novel adaptation by Young Kim. And tons of manga too, plenty of it age appropriate (see Manga4Kids for recommendations – I’ve still got a lot to learn myself). The School Library Journal has a great blog to help find Good Comics For Kids.

There are also great web-comics for kids online. Two of my favorites are the whimsical Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschl and the delightfully absurd Axe Cop by Ethan Nicolle and Malachai Nicolle (age 5!). LunchboxFunnies.com is a good place to start, although they sadly haven’t updated for several months now. Hopefully it’s just temporary. There have been a few sites attempting to track age appropriate web-comics but sadly most are over a year old now, basically ancient artifacts in internet time.

Plenty of the above mentioned comics have been released as digital comics on mobile devices and online through services like ComiXology. Although they have yet to parse out kids comics to make shopping easier, they do have age ratings, which helps a great deal. Much of Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener is recommended for kids 9 and up, and it is regularly among the most downloaded.

So kids comics do sell. You just have to know how to get them to kids.