Category Archives: creative class

Comics: Can They Be for Kids?

(Text of an address given to the OCM BOCES School Library System in Syracuse, NY, on April 28, 2017, in advance of the organization’s activities centered on Free Comic Book Day, May 6, 2017.)

This is a question that actually gets pondered a lot these days, as admirers of the artform lament its shrinking audience, and feel that a once youth-oriented medium has turned its back on the readership that first made it a phenomenon.


(art by David Mack)

The built-in irony, of course, is that at their height in America, comics were considered for kids but not good for them; at best a rudimentary gateway to “real” reading, in prose novels, and at worst a corrupting and coarsening pastime that would spoil them for literature if not indeed induce them to mass-murder.


The medium would hover between self-consciousness and self-confidence for many eras; the empirically unsound association of comics with so-called juvenile delinquency would help spell the demise of superhero and horror comics judged respectively fascist and depraved, but the readership too was hungering to stay loyal to the artform while putting away childish things — GIs who had just saved the world from a real-life supervillain in World War Two wanted to read about real life, so comics about their war experiences briefly became popular…


(art by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

…EC, the company that anti-comics crusaders had focused on, gambled to keep its already uncommonly adult audience by replacing its lurid horror parables with more grounded subject matter…



(art by Johnny Craig [upper] and Jack Kamen [lower])

…the first attempts at novel-length, everyday-world comics were made…


(art by Matt Baker)

…and romance comics, the most successful of any of these endeavors, flooded the shelves, both enforcing domestic norms and acknowledging the value of loving rather than fighting, for the largest female audience American comics had ever had to that point or would have for decades after.


(art by Jack Kirby & Joe Simon)

When superheroes returned with the optimistic, world-saving attitude of the JFK years, Marvel Comics in particular sought to split the juvenile/adult difference by incorporating the soap-opera of the romance comics into their superhero stories, and by actively engaging the social issues that raged in the 1960s and courting a college-age readership that began to gravitate toward their comics.


(art by John Romita, Sr.)

Kids do tend to sense when they’re being condescended too though, and attempts to “elevate” the medium, which were prefaced on the assumption that the medium was inferior and its readers in need of intervention, were often the true ephemera. Several generations will still remember being dissuaded from reading comics or literature from the stiff, institutional Classics Illustrated…


(artist unknown)

…and the wave of “relevant” comics, though legitimate benchmarks in the artform’s process of maturation, were ridiculed widely even in their day, by kids who didn’t know, and didn’t have to, that many of these comics originated in then-President Nixon’s appeal to comics publishers to somehow influence the tide of youthful drug use.


(art by Neal Adams)

The inauthenticity was plain to kids and teens being lectured across the so-called generation gap, though this experience probably gave a lot of them their first exercise in ironic distance from pop-cultural proselytizing.

Still, we find ourselves participating in a lecture about comics today; and in classrooms and cultural centers around the world. This is partly because the ambition and sophistication of the medium has steadily evolved; we don’t need comic abridgments of classic novels, because some comics fill the role of complex reflections on eternal issues themselves.


It is also in part because the very currency of cultural legitimacy has shifted; through a combination of generational turnover and dissolution of top-down definitions of what qualifies as significant art — not just academic but vernacular, not just European but Global, not just industrial but aboriginal, not only narratives and perspectives which favor the patriarchal — the value of art in different modal voices is more recognized as a scope of inquiry into how we can express ourselves and understand each other.

There is in fact scholarship dating back to the first half of the 20th century that indicates that the immediacy and attractiveness of comics helps develop literacy by engaging reluctant readers. A typical sentiment comes from a 1944 study that affirmed that “instruction must begin in the ongoing activities and concerns of the learner and that its effectiveness depends on the efficiency of the form of communication that is employed.” In the post-World War II period, Will Eisner, who had made his name with an adult-aimed, newspaper-supplement comic, The Spirit, which established many of the techniques we see in acclaimed graphic novels today…



…was employed by the U.S. military to produce a journal in comic form to impart techniques of preventive maintenance on vehicles and weaponry, which saved real lives; to this no-nonsense branch of government, the educative potential of comics was clear.



Ben Katchor, a contemporary cartoonist who was the first to get a MacArthur fellowship, amusingly yet pointedly asserts his view that literature without pictures is a relatively brief anomaly in the history of human narrative; that heavy illustration was common in the Victorian novel, for instance, and this tendency has reasserted itself in the current surge of graphic literature.


(art by Gustave Doré)

Much has been said and studied about the way that meaning is constructed, and shades of interpretation enabled, by the comic form’s requirement of simultaneous textual reading and visual experience, and the higher understanding that coalesces in the mind’s reconciliation of these modes. The most groundbreaking exploration of these ideas, and of the way that comics can embody the processing and perception of complex relationships because each page is both a linear progression of narrative, and a system of juxtaposed images, moments in time, etc., is Unflattening by Dr. Nick Sousanis, a thesis on cognition that he produced as a comic, to demonstrate to us and keep discovering for himself the way that creativity by its nature is a path to comprehension.




(art by Nick Sousanis [above three])

This of course is a scale model of the information environment we all now live in. The visual has more primacy now than it has since the eras of hieroglyphics or religious stained-glass windows; in the current day, this is not just a matter of the displacement of the page by the (smartphone/tablet/TV) screen, where the image is dominant even though literal text still plays a major role; the complex of media we now experience is sensed spatially, a concept which makes the visual more accentuated because it is more unframed.



The page of a book is a container of information; now, the information stream surrounds us — in simultaneous audio feeds to our earbuds, textual information on our phones, and news or personal messages while we work on a computer, along with the animated billboards, monumental projections, lasers and neon of the modern public space and, soon enough, the cartoon phantoms and floating readouts of augmented reality and head-up display.

Helmet & shield


Comics both model this simultaneity, and provide a means of following it at a personalized pace. (And, often, at a size comparable to the intimate scale that we have become attached to in handheld devices.)

Thus, comics have gone beyond an aid to conventional reading; to decipher a way of life defined by systems of information is a matter not just of literacy, but citizenship; in the semiotic sense of symbols and social standards and competing beliefs all being a kind of language, texts surround us, and comics contain the apparatus to navigate these meanings.

The librarian and comics theorist Damian Duffy points out that comics fandom provided a prototype of the kind of selective cultural communities that later became common on the internet; Philadelphia librarian Matt Catron told me that his branch’s commitment to holding comic cons is intended to strengthen a sense of community by acknowledging and serving the distinct affinity groups of comics fans and cosplayers; Queens, NY children’s librarian Maryanne Olson told me that she mindfully builds graphic-novel and manga collections that will expose her dominant population to the narratives of cultures not their own, so that “the library can be a space of encounter.”

In doing this, she speaks of the balance between “the mirror and the window,” though the mirror can catch passersby too, and everyone has become more aware of how important that mirror is to those who have not been accustomed to seeing themselves reflected anywhere else.

Such identities are usually formulated in youth, of course, and it’s interesting, in light of our opening question, that the current wave of comic characters representing an unprecedented range of cultures and gender associations includes so many who are also kids. The most publicized ones have been Kamala Khan, the Muslim-American teen Ms. Marvel…


(art by Adrian Alphona [left] and Sara Pichelli [right])

…and RiRi Williams, the 15-year-old successor to Tony Stark, known as Ironheart.


(art by Jeff Dekal)

The latter is part of a telling parallel trend, of youthful heroes, often female and kids of color, who excel at science or other cerebral pursuits. Myths of inferior intellect are dispelled and ambition is modeled by Lunella Lafayette, the 9-year-old inventor known as Moon Girl…


(art by Amy Reeder)

…Nadia Pym, the young-adult Russian exile who’s recruiting an institute of unheralded girl scientists and is known as The Wasp…



(art by Elsa Charretier [upper and lower])

…boy-genius (and current Hulk) Amadeus Cho…


(art by Stonehouse)

…and my and artist Paolo Leandri’s own oceanography prodigy and highschool-sophomore mutant mermaid, Mirta del Mar, Aquaria.



(art by co-creator Paolo Leandri, colors by Dominic Regan)

Each issue of The Wasp’s comic has an interview with two real-life woman scientists in its backmatter, and popular comics from entirely on the real-life side include the recent Primates, a charming and textured entwined biography of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas.


(art by Maris Wicks)

Characters like these represent what I believe is a fundamental shift in the aspirational nature of superheroes. In his pioneering work of comics analysis, The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer recalls how much he hated Batman’s sidekick, Robin, for the reason that he could dream about one day being Batman, but he had no time to become this perfect boy champion. By contrast, characters like Ms. Marvel and Ironheart are the headliners, and very popular with fans. Whereas Robin is someone a 1940s boy already couldn’t be, yet a standard they felt held to, the Lunellas and Kamalas, flawed, promising and underestimated, are each variations of who a 2010s girl already is, but hasn’t been valued as.


The Queens children’s librarian, Maryanne Olson, told me that when she surveyed the kids about what they wanted to see more of in comics, “more girls” was the choice of both the girls and the boys; this is one demonstration of how comics can create and cross communities.

Another is a remarkable project by the Italy-based NGO known as COSV in which kids from mainstream Lebanese society collaborated on making comics with kids from Palestinian refugee camps, as a way to get these mutually isolated groups to appreciate each other; the program has paired kids and comics professionals from several other countries as well, including Jordan, Morocco, and Macedonia.




Free Comic Book Day programs could include such collaborations — cooperative activities provide a good social model for developing personalities, and the enjoyment of the process helps endear kids to a lifelong-learning practice.

There could also be discussion sessions, in which views are respected but can be put to the test. Graphic novels like Marguerite Van Cook’s The Late Child, about growing up in the rubble of postwar London…


(art by James Romberger, color by Marguerite Van Cook)

…or Kindred, an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s classic tale of time-travel to the slavery era, can put kids in the shoes of those facing traumas we still feel the effects of today.


(art by John Jennings)

And cultural relations are portrayed at least once as farce and once as tragedy in the selection of Free Comics your area has received. The Fresh off the Boat: Legion of Dope-itude comic has fun with both the conventions of superhero fiction and the assumptions of ethnic stereotype, while tucked into the back of the Avatar comic is a story from Briggs Land, a series about a Cliven Bundy-style bunker community of White Nationalists. These two alone cover a valuable spectrum of both hopes for harmony, and anxieties about division, that may be on your kids’ minds in these times.



(art by Jorge Corona [upper] and Tula Lotay [lower])

Between hands-on comic-making, and discussion of comics, could be a concepting session for some new story or character.

What personal experience makes a good story? What would constitute honesty and how can the strict facts be imaginatively embellished? What kind of fictional world would you see as desirable, and which might you see as dystopian?


(“Ms. America”/America Chavez art by Jamie McKelvie)

What kind of hero might you create — when you think of a hero or villain, what traits of behavior or characteristics of appearance do you picture, and what may this say about how you view your peers of different backgrounds, or certain public figures you see in the media?



(art by Frank Espinosa [upper and lower])

Comic artist and educator Frank Espinosa told me how, in conceiving the content and flavor of some educative comics he and writer Sajan Saini did for the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and School of Engineering, he wanted to aim the work at “the 10-year-old inside of the scientist. The more we talked to them, the more I could see their eyes light up at a sentence or a word — that moment in time was what I wanted to capture; the wonder that got them started on this long journey.”

So, comics are for villages, and children, and teachers and anyone else who isn’t done learning.

Great thanks to Matt Catron, Allison Comes, Damian Duffy, Frank Espinosa, Arlene Frei, Maryanne Olsen, Andrea Plazzi, Sajan Saini, Nick Sousanis and Andrea Viscusi

Fuller references and further reading:

Damian Duffy dissertation:

Nick Sousanis’ online journal:


What Comes Around (3)

The Top 5 things I didn’t get to in 2013

New Year’s is a time for reflection and aspiration, but these are fueled by fruitful regret! Over the next week or so, we’ll be looking back longingly at art, comics, books and music I should have paid more public attention to in the 12 months just past — and pledging to make all our cultural appreciation immediate and immortal!

power of glamour-1

The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel

Time had a good run for four billion years or so, but it’s been replaced in our priorities with space — our understanding of dimension, in the theoretical-physics sense of parallel realities and not just geographic expansion, has overtaken our nostalgia for an idealized past or optimism for a perfected future; we could have the better life, the cleaner environment, the fairer society now, if we could make the right choices we know every moment’s particle pivots on and just bring the perfect world into focus with the space we occupy, like two projected film frames being synced up.

Virginal Postrel maps this perception of possibility in her fascinating study, out last December, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (Simon & Schuster).

PoG glasshouseHer subject is the allure of what we don’t have and feel we are in line for, be it social utopia or personal wealth or fulfillment in romance and creative expression. She shows how popular figures, widespread symbols, sought-after objects incarnate or refer to these desires, and how, by the nature of their personal significance, these icons are subjective, and subject to shifts in context of era and culture — how, for instance, the impoverished Depression era could glamorize sleek luxury (without taking account of industrialization’s costs in pollution and drudgery) while the comparatively materially satisfied current generation of Americans elevate the rural and organic (editing out the agrarian life’s difficulties and disease). 

This is not a book about style (Postrel has done one of those too); the author is examining not intrinsic worth or beauty, but an appeal that is ascribed to things. The icons of glamour — wind turbines, sporstcars, Marilyn Monroe — are not the Platonic “forms”; not the ideal, but the echo, the symbol that plays the superlative on television (or movies, or political conventions or sports arenas or shop-cases) and projects it on our dreams…or is the screen for them.

Postrel excavates with diligence and insight many things you recognize but realize you don’t know — the Rosetta Stones and commercial scripture of our current era, e.g., who actually held the first fashion show, and when the open theater of billboards and store windows first collected around a community whose aspirations they both spurred and articulated. In images we can see as icons of the old-fashioned, like the proper and put-together Gibson Girl (a late-1880s magazine- and print-illustration archetype), Postrel illuminates the roots of a later empowerment that this affluent and leisurely yet often solitary and always self-possessed figure, a significant departure for its time, set in motion and marked the progress toward.

The book takes care to be true to the sensory enjoyment or spiritual attachment under discussion, with phrasing and interpretations as artful as its subject matter, and an observant interplay between the text and images which specifically illustrate or thematically resonate with it, from art-deco murals to the Shanghai skyline to one particular valedictory photo that echoes back to the book’s first page in a way that shows Postrel’s encompassing vantage point and persistent attention.PoG military

She makes novel connections and certifies unpopular but incisive outlooks — as with the reasoning that early automation, with its fear of (then mostly male) workers being replaced, helped bring on the glamour and fantasy of cars (a machine you control) and self-reliant hyper-masculine movie gangsters and superheroes; and the realization that rappers’ supposedly crass bling obsession is not garish consumption but conspicuous positive visualization, from a class to whom economic and household-technology advances that the majority considers basic are not at all evenly distributed.

Too many sociologists deny the inexactness of their science, but Postrel understands that the observer must admit, embrace, their participation to report with any authenticity on how cultural influences work on the human mind; to this end her fluency in pop culture, her accounting for a range of its sources from 1600s Japan to modern hip-hop, and her consideration of the most seemingly ephemeral or widely dismissed expressions of it — comics, Star Trek fandom — are all the more persuasive.

As a scholar who partakes of as well as reflects upon the phenomenon, Postrel’s reasoning respects the public’s ability to discern the effect of glamour on them, as a connection we “know to be false but feel to be true,” as with superheroes, a symbol cited as clearly aspirational because the popular audience knows it is purely unattainable. Postrel builds a good case for why those aspirations (of the powerful being, the beautiful princess, the esteemed writer or accomplished adventurer) can be beneficial — not just in mentally escaping misery but successfully striving to leave it behind, or in envisioning the not-yet-possible to create needed inventions, etc. — as well as the dazzle of glamour’s more common critical identification as a spur to admire tyranny and terrorism or see life as one long disappointment.

PoG deco clipThe flaws are barely notable in the book’s captivating whole, though scrutiny of the type Postrel herself practices directs our attention beyond the surface. A faint market bias seems to poke through in passages like the one where Postrel catalogues the (very real) drawbacks of wind power in detail while only alluding to the illusions of nuclear by pondering if wind will go the way of “electricity too cheap to meter,” which only readers of a certain age or wonkiness will recognize as the Peaceful Atom’s old slogan. Editorial adjectives are reserved for counterparts Postrel has an apparent personal hostility toward — the “crabbed” and “desiccated” John Berger is a lot more fun to read that those who haven’t would surmise from the way he’s portrayed here, though Postrel has good points about the limitations of his inquiry.

And at some points she seems to overrule her own arguments to back away from even mildly dissident conclusions — in a spotlight on the visual archetype of The Striding Woman, she marshals many quotes from across history and from men, women, political individuals and commercial institutions alike to confirm the encouragement or exploitation of a feminist impulse in this image, then at the end says it conveys “a more universal allure.” But as rightfully universal as this vision is as a symbol of freedom and assurance, it always draws its appeal from an implication of what women couldn’t do before — and that can be a symbol to men who want to expand their possibilities too (like fashion photographer Richard Avedon, who is quoted as being inspired by the photos of Martin Munkacsi, an auteur of the confident, striding professional/fashionable woman image in the 1930s), but it is always keying to a specifically gendered sense of restraint and liberation (even the unconventional male identity reflected in Avedon’s interests and form of expression); sometimes a symbol isn’t “more” than it seems because what it seems is everything.
PoG future

Nonetheless, Postrel’s omnidirectional frame of reference rejects checklists. Any concern a reader of a given ideology can raise finds the book revolving around to a full and considered context (as when, apropos of the above, the chapter on contemporary glamour takes account of the action-heroine as icon of what viewers feel persistently missing in their life and society). Postrel processes events and adjusts the shape and breadth and texture of her observation to the profusion and evolution of its subjects in ways that diverge from the distance and retrospect of much social criticism and study; avoiding either political agendas or prior intellectual conclusions, her ability to assume the perspective and engage the vocabulary of many contexts and tastes, to navigate among multiple cultures (both historically established and spontaneously synthesized), makes Postrel one of the most indispensible intellects and credible observers in our perpetually morphing and exponentially diversifying social fabric.

Postrel’s eye takes in and evaluates with attentiveness and originality a panorama of human condition, period and place, and all its fine details and ephemeral shades of feeling and impression. The Power of Glamour is the almanac of the space we occupy as ever-differing people in the shifting world we collect around ourselves, a history-in-progress of the destiny we make up as we go along.

Part 1, Part 2Part 4, Part 5