In a move to help make sure teachers in Maryland keep their jobs (and of course scare up some votes for her reelection campaign), Senator Nancy King is running an ad showing what would happen if kids were left teacherless. Oh, and by the way, this ad make it seem like comics are only for the uneducated. Thank you Senator King.
As reported on Bleeding Cool, the good Senator’s ad features kids sitting around reading comics. It then goes on to say that this is the world we would live in if we had no teachers. My God the horror! Kids choosing to read on their own! And for fun! Wait, what’s that? Oh, sorry. I have just been informed by a representative of Senator King that comic books do not equal reading.
And that’s really where the problem lies, right? People don’t equate comic books with reading. Now I can kind of understand where they are coming from here. I do agree that kids should read some of the classics, the Moby Dicks and Tom Sawyers and the like. But what really gets my goat, what really does the goat getting here is that they assume that comics don’t have any of the features of good literature in them. That, my friends, is simply untrue.
Now I’m going to get into some spoilers here for the comics themselves, so if you don’t want to know anything, beware. Here there be spoilers.
First let’s tackle that X-Men comic the little boy is reading. Are the X-Men bad for kids? Huh. I thought a story that focuses heavily on racism and how we can all get along would be encouraged by teachers. Sure, there’s lots of laser zapping and bad guy punching and…well, have you seen Emma Frost’s wardrobe? But behind all that, always prevalent, is the theme of race, of how we should all be able to get along but just can’t. Way back in the beginning of the X-Men Professor X was obviously a Martin Luthor King Jr. type figure with Magneto representing Malcom X. They both want what’s best for mutant kind, but while the Professor believes that one day mutants and humans can live together in peace, Magneto sees that cause as hopeless. He is willing to protect the mutant race through any means necessary. Now wouldn’t reading comics like that help kids understand how race relations were in the 50’s and 60’s?
And this is before we even get into Magneto’s origins. Tell me, how often is it in any medium that a villain is written in such a way that you at times understand his motivations better than those of the heroes? Magneto is the classic tragic villain. He is like Frankenstein’s monster in a way. He only wants to be accepted, but because of his background (for the monster being abandoned, for Magneto the Holocaust) and simply because of what he is (the monster is composed of dead people, Magneto is a mutant) he finds himself being attacked by the so called civilized society. So he attacks back. He reciprocates the hatred tenfold. Magneto becomes the thing he hates in an effort to save his race. That is a tragic paradox that is much greater than simple comic book fluff, no?
Now let’s look at that Avengers comic the girl is reading. What the Avengers have been through in the last few years would fit into just about any Greek tragedy. Scarlet Witch goes insane and destroys the team. Just when they reform Stamford, Connecticut is destroyed by a super hero/super villain fight, causing passage of the Super Hero Registration Act. This causes the Marvel universe to engage in a civil war, pitting friend against friend, brother against brother. Captain America is killed, Tony Stark becomes a national hero for jailing his friends and everything is screwed up. Then the secret invasion of the Skrulls happens, which causes severe distrust in the super hero ranks to grow even further. You know, because Skrulls are shape shifters. When villain Norman Osborn, leader of the villains-turned-heroes group the Thunderbolts and ex-Green Goblin, takes out the Skrull queen and stops the invasion, he becomes the hero and takes over the defense of America. Suddenly villains are heroes, heroes are on the run and everything is more messed up than ever. Now really, tell me that doesn’t have all the stuff the classics have in it? Tragedy, heroism, plot twists, moral ambiguity, all wrapped up in super heroics.
Let’s look at one specific point in all of that. The destruction of the friendship of Iron Man and Captain America. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, has been fighting to make sure super heroes have to register. He believes that, after so many mistakes made by untrained and undisciplined heroes, the community needs to be held to a higher responsibility. Sounds reasonable, right? But Captain America believes that heroes need to keep their identities secret in order to protect their lives and the lives of their families, and that no government should be able to force private citizens into registering with the government. Also sounds reasonable, right? And that’s the tragedy. These two champions of justice each believe that what they are doing is right. They’re both trying to protect innocent people. And they are both partially right. The super hero community does need to take responsibility for itself, but putting its heroes in the hands of the government just leads to tragedy. Hi Norman. And of course, all of this leads to the death of Captain America and one of the most tragic scenes in all of comic book history.
One man, sitting alone, grieving for the friend whose death he had a hand in. All for the “greater good.” And how, exactly, is this not intelligent reading?
Finally let’s deal with the Superman comic. More specifically, let’s talk about the latest Superman story arc. Its called Grounded and its written by the brilliant J. Michael Straczynski. It is about Superman, the most powerful being on the planet, reconnecting with those he has sworn to protect by walking across America. Its Forrest Gump in tights, one could say. Remember the part of that movie where Forrest just runs from coast to coast? Yeah, imagine Superman doing that. Now the really interesting thing going on here is that Superman will be confronting things beyond super villains. In the first issue of the Grounded story arc he saved a woman bent on committing suicide. In the second one he has to deal with child abuse. As Straczynski said, he wanted to present Superman with challenges that couldn’t just be punched away. There’s even going to be an issue later on where Superman walks through Arizona and has to deal with the new immigration law there. Who would have thought? Comic books that deal with contemporary issues in a way that isn’t pandering or insulting. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that exactly what we should be encouraging kids to do?
So far we’ve only discussed super hero comics. We’re completely ignoring all the other types of comics out there. There are stories like Blankets, about the finding and loss of first love, or Fables, the story of fairy tales living in the real world, or Sandman, about the personification of dreaming hanging out with William Shakespeare and Satan. There are tons and tons of stories out there that would be considered classic literature if they weren’t done in pictures.
Well this has gone on a bit longer than I originally intended it to. Its just that I thought we were finally past this type of thinking. I thought that comics were getting taken seriously now. Hell, The Dark Knight was one of the best films of 2008. Not just the best super hero film. Not just the best comic book or sci-fi film. One of the best films period. It had fully fleshed out characters and an intriguing plot and intensity and drama and all of that. Yet still we get stuff like that ad from Senator King which treats comics like something dirty, like you should be ashamed to be reading them. Comics today are full of rich themes and intriguing characters and issues that teachers would want kids to talk about. Besides all that though, its still reading. It encourages reading. Does it really matter what the kid is reading? Isn’t the point to get kids to read? Then again, what do I know? I clearly didn’t have any good teachers. I enjoy comic books.
P.S.: One of the best teachers I ever had was an immigrant. He learned English partially through comic books. So there’s that.