Born in the mid 20th century, in a not very bookish household, my earliest literary influences were Enid Blyton and comics. Especially comics, which I could buy for myself at pocket money prices from the corner shop, long before I was old enough to take myself off to a library.
The comic format seems an obvious way to encourage children to read. The skilful fusion of mimesis and graphics in a guided narrative makes a fun and frustration-free early reading material. Comics seem to me (as a non-expert of these things) to combine many of the traditional story telling ideas with theatre and pictures but with the added bonus of visible and readable text. They seem to offer a synthesis of many approaches to the much-debated subject of the best way to teach children to read. With little on television in those days a comic was a welcome and entertaining diversion on a wet afternoon. I loved the traditional British comics – Beano, Dandy, Beezer. Aged three, I have my first recollection of silent reading – a Beezer I think.
Living abroad, where the school library had a very limited collection of Chalet School and more Blyton, I guzzled American DC, Marvell and Mad comics, discovering a world of fantasy and adventure. I read about Martian invasions, time travel, superheroes and supervillains. They were a disjuncture alongside imported Judy, Bunty, June and Schoolfriend. The Incredible Hulk raged alongside The Four Marys. Bobby Dazzler and Batman flirted on my bedroom floor. And a little later – back in Britain – TV (Century) 21 comic pandered to my interest in sci fi, where I identified with female characters like Lady Penelope or Rhapsody Angel from the Gerry Anderson productions. All too soon came those adolescent years of not being quite grown up enough for boyfriends but wanting to identify with the teen thing – so I read Jackie – a transitional magazine to the grown-up world.
Comics have a magic for children, like childhood imagination games, where that magic disappears once adolescence strikes. It can never be recovered. It has something to tell us about the trancendental state of totally immersed reading – not only comics, of course – but any book, once a child reads confidently.
Comics offerred something that is perhaps now fulfilled by the ubiquitous and proliferating tv soaps, reality shows, computer games and the Internet. In my case, the paper comic medium provided a stepping stone to more serious reading and imaginative perspectives unavailable in other children’s literature. Moreover, now I appreciate the narrative skill of those artists and writers, whether they were drawing Keyhole Kate or Professor Xavier. The quality of the illustrations alone is to be marvelled at. They had their own formulae, but left room for a child’s imagination.
I find narrative in my own work challenging, but thinking back at my comic reading youth I could learn something from the approach – artwork and text – always carefully pared to essentials – a masterpiece of economy. It became more than the sum of the parts. The essence of ‘show not tell’.
I get the sense that the way people read has changed in half a century and that people approach the written word differently to my generation. I worry too, that theory is leading to a ‘one size fits all’ idea of reading. Learning to read is not just about decoding letters into words, whether using the currently in favour phonics method or any of the others. Words and literature have a freight of meaning bestowed on them via language in history and culture. It is not enough to decode sounds and be able to pronounce a word correctly – it has to have context and qualification.
Seldom now, do we need to write extended pieces of narrative. Letter writing has been replaced by brief e-mails, status updates, tweets, texts and a return to the spoken language using mobiles and Skype. I contend that the way we write and read in general is more ‘digital’ in an attempt to classify meaning to allow it to become ‘data’. We are a tickbox/multiple choice society. Perhaps in another couple of generations, reading as we know it will be an arcane skill requiring an expert to interpret. Perhaps they will use a graphic method to decode it for laypeople.