At a fundamental level, comics are written in a visual language of sequential images combined (usually) with an aural language presented as text. Humans are innately programmed to learn languages, visual included, and quickly acquire the lexicon, grammar, symbols, cultural traditions and cognitive schema of visual language. This visual language allows comic readers to combine patterns into meaningful units with a hierarchic grammar that governs the combination of sequential images into coherent expressions (Cohn 2014).
With the rise of screen-based technology like television, computers, iPads, iPhones and white-boards we are increasingly immersed in a visual culture that relies on visual language. Combining visual and textual media results in an intimate connection between readers and characters in the story (Versaci 2001).
Comics have been a part of human culture since before the written word, if cave drawings meet the criteria and practically all cultures have had an experience of comics. McCloud defines comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" (page 9, 1993). Comics can be viewed as a literary, artistic, cultural, and cognitive phenomenon that reaches across a broad range of genres - crime, horror, sci-fi, adventure, comedy and education, to name a few.
During the twentieth century comics fell into disrepute in western society, due mainly to the efforts of psychiatrist Dr Wertham to have comics subject to government regulation. Wertham accused comic books of promoting violence, racial stereotyping, rebelliousness, juvenile delinquency and illiteracy (1954). Research into the educational value of comics was effectively stopped until the 1970s. Gradually they made their way back into the classroom for reluctant readers until Art Spiegelman’s comic ‘Maus’ won a Pulitzer Prize (1992). This non-fiction comic was the first to be acknowledged as an artistically mature literate work.
While the debate continues about whether comics are art or literature or something else, they are finally coming into their own, according to Dr Glenn Downey, author teacher and academic from Oakville, Ontario (www.comicsineducation.com) who claims that everything he learned is from a comic. Teachers around the world are designing new ways of using comics as a way to engage students in creative thinking (www.teachingcomics.org). As part of the ‘edutainment’ genre, educational comics use the elements of the comic medium to educate and entertain their readers. A cast of characters is created to present a story in a sequence of drawings and scripts designed to teach practically anything from chemistry to creative writing, from earthquakes to obesity and from science to social skills. They are hugely engaging of young people and children. Carol Gray used Comic Strip Conversations (1994) to turn abstract situations like social interactions into concrete experiences. As well as being strongly visual in nature, these comic strip conversations used stick figures with speech bubbles to record what happened and allowed students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to dissect social situations in a structured way.
Cohn, N. (2014). The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images, Bloomsbury
Downey, G. Comics in Education www.comicsineducation.com Accessed 19.1.15
Gray, C. (1994). Comic Strip Conversations: Colourful illustrated interactions with autism and related disorders, Jenison Public Schools, Jenison Michigan
McCloud, S (1993). Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art, Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press
The National Association of Comics Art Educators, www.teachingcomics.org Accessed 19.1.15
Versaci, R. (2001). How comic books can change the way our students see literature: One teacher's perspective. English Journal, 91 (2), 61-67.