Graphic novels are literary appetizers for unvoracious readers


As a new parent, one of the first things you are told -- right after "Your life will never be the same" -- is "Read to your child every day."

You conclude -- although this is never actually promised -- that this will imbue your child with a devotion to books and reading.

Suddenly it is fourth grade and he's doing a book report on the comic-book version of Cal Ripken's biography and you realize you are in trouble. Your child has decided that reading a book is not transporting, it is work. Especially when pictures no longer take up the whole page.

You find yourself dismissing any notions you had of Robert Louis Stevenson and J. R. R. Tolkien, and taking comfort when he reads the back of baseball cards.

So, when he brings home a hard-bound, 150-page comic book, you don't know whether to bless the librarian or lock yourself in a room and weep.

They are called "graphic novels," a reference not to sex or violence but to their heavy illustration. True graphic novels are not cartoon collections, but long comic books or collected short comic stories sold in book form.

Since Batman and Superman appeared in the 1930s and '40s, comic books have enjoyed a special place in the short attention span of children. Those children forget, when they have kids of their own, how much time they spent with Spiderman or Archie and Veronica.

In the 1980s, comic books set out to reclaim these adults and the graphic novel was born. At first these books turned the traditional superheroes upside down and exposed a dark side only an adult would comprehend. "The Dark Knight Returns" supposedly inspired director Tim Burton's vision in the movie "Batman Returns."

Since then, Ray Bradbury and Anne Rice novels, old soap operas like "Dark Shadows," operas like Mozart's "Magic Flute" and Shakespeare's plays have been re-created as graphic novels.

Some consider them overblown -- the use of fancy paper to do bad comics -- but Art Spiegelman brought the graphic novel into respectability in 1992 when he won a Pulitzer Prize for "Maus," a Holocaust story told through animals.

I was not thinking Pulitzer when my son brought home "Elfquest: Fire and Flight," the first in a graphic novel series by comic book writers Wendy and Richard Pini. But I was feeling gratified in spite of myself when I found his reading light burning late one night.

"One of the best forms of feedback is from parents and teachers," said Pini from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he and his wife have created the tribe of forest-dwelling elves marooned in a primitive and unfriendly world.

"They tell us they have kids who are problem readers and our illustrations carry those kids from page to page. When we hear that, it makes our day."

"Well, I wouldn't throw it in the trash," said Dianne Rogers, a friend and a reading specialist. The enthusiasm the Pinis have experienced is apparently not universal.

"The premise is excellent," Dianne said. "The art work would appeal to kids. And a character named 'Picknose.' What child wouldn't want to read about that?

"But one of the most powerful tools of the mind is visual imagery. To see what the author is describing. This kind of book takes that away. The child relies on someone else's vision."

For a child who can read well, these books are the junk food of literature. Empty calories. But for a child who is having difficulty reading, the illustrations give him the clues to get through the text that is so defeating, she said. "It has a place."

"This is dreck," said Juliet Shore, supervisor of children and young adult services at Annapolis Public Library.

"Fantasy literature is such a high-interest area for kids," she said. "And there are so many good writers. Read this stuff and you don't even have to chew."

She said the comic-book phase is one that even the best readers seem to pass through on their way to better books.

"So I just use things like this as a bridge to other fantasy. They ask for comic books and I tell them we don't have it and I get them something else. Something better. Pretty soon they won't need the pictures. They will want to imagine it themselves."

When my son finishes "Elfquest," I will have waiting for him the Redwall series by Brian Jacques -- hundreds of pages of gray type describing a medieval world populated by animals. They are the rage among preteen boys right now.

No color illustrations. No dialogue balloons. Plenty of visual imagery required.

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