|Comic Books: An Evolving Multimodal Literacy Page 1 of 9|
|Written by Taylor Quimby|
Comic books have a history of controversy. Twenty years after their successful introduction to newsstands everywhere, American McCarthyism was in full swing. As part of the national landscape of censorship, the U.S. Senate investigated the role of comic books in connection to rising rates of juvenile delinquency. As Paul Lopes observes, it was the crusade against comics in the 1950s that led to “the perception of the comic book as a subliterate, children’s medium” (31). Shedding this perception has been the struggle of many fans and creators ever since.
For a long time, moral concerns about whether or not comic content should be regulated and censored prevented the medium from being given serious consideration as an aesthetic form. Are comic books worth evaluating as art? In recent years, this debate has covered both the content and structure of comics and ranges from criticism of the speech balloon to the tendency for superhero narratives to wallow in repetitive, didactic plots. It has become increasingly clear that within the context of their controversial history, it is impossible to write about comic books without explicitly, or inadvertently, defending or condemning their reputation.
Meanwhile, as comic books have struggled to be considered seriously alongside more conventional forms of literature, the nature of literacy itself has changed. In recent decades, theorists like Gee, Brandt, and Heath have steered away from notions of literacy as a set of fixed skills and proposed an alternative view: literacy as a culturally and contextually situated set of multimodal practices. What complicates our concept of literacy necessarily complicates our concept of literature. A reevaluation of the comic book in relation to new literacy studies is long overdue.
My intention in this paper is to investigate the role of literacy in comic books, both in content and form. Specifically, I want to better understand how we read comics. How do we make meaning from the combination of text and illustrations? Secondly, I want to investigate how literacy practices and values are represented within the pages of comics. Williams and Zengar theorized that, “If we watch films carefully for who reads and writes, in what settings, and for what social goals, we can see a reflection of the dominant functions and perceptions that shape our conceptions of literacy in our culture” (18). Using similar methodology, I hope to reveal some ways in which the comic subculture perceives literacy, and how this relates to or contrasts with the historical understanding of comic books as a sub-literate medium.