How Comic Books Can Help Improve Literacy

Posted on August 24, 2011 by





When I was a kid, such larger-than-life language sucked me into the world of comic books.

They featured ordinary people for the most part, who through a set of bizarre circumstances acquired powers that made them superheroes.

The Avenging Angel.

The Diabolical Dr. Doom.

And my all-time favorite, the Uncanny X-Men.

The combination of great illustrations, over-the-top prose, and riveting story lines kept me spending my 25 cents each week for the next cliff-hanger.

The magnetic attraction of comic books, particularly for boys, has become a secret weapon for programs seeking to improve the literacy and language skills of students. One such organization is Philadelphia’s Mighty Writers.

Founded a few years ago by former Philadelphia Weekly editor Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers is a nonprofit that helps city kids improve their literacy skills through free writing programs and workshops, a weekly Teen Writers Lounge for high schoolers, and an SAT preparatory course.

As the group was looking for ways to interest the kids under its charge in reading (and ultimately writing), it stumbled onto the allure comics held for the young.

“We set up a reading room with all these great books, along with comics and graphic novels that the kids could take home and return when they were done,” Whitaker said. “We couldn’t keep enough comics and the graphic novels on the shelf. We were definitely onto something here.”

Something, indeed.

Mighty Writers went from having comics in the reading room to having the kids create their own comics as a way to hone their writing. Now images of the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel are boldly featured throughout the funky headquarters at 15th and Christian. The group has even turned its second location on South Street into a comic gallery that invites kids and comic-book fans into the world of sensationalism and skulduggery – all in the name of unleashing the power (and love) of words.

This is not to say that Mighty Writers is grooming the next graphic novelist, but stranger things have happened.

Just ask Robb Armstrong.

Robb and I grew up together in West Philly. He’s been drawing since we were cornerboys on the block. Now he’s one of a handful of syndicated African American cartoonists in the world. His comic strip, Jump Start, launched 20 years ago and is featured in 300 newspapers (and counting) nationwide.

Somebody put a marker in Robb’s hand and, with a blank sheet of paper, he created characters that continue to make readers laugh, cry, and ponder life seven days a week.

“My job, quite simply, is to connect people from all walks of life to the human condition and find the common humor that exists for all of us,” Armstrong said. “That often provides me with both the power and responsibility to shape how people think about issues and each other.”

Power and responsibility. Sounds pretty heroic to me.

The ability to touch people’s lives so profoundly is not conferred by some cosmic ray or bolt from the blue. It takes hard work, study, and discipline to command these talents.

One might wonder, though, if we are expecting too much from the illustrated pages of a comic book. Only the future can tell, but to watch a youngster become engrossed in a favorite story is exhilarating, a promising picture to behold.

On a recent visit to Mighty Writers, I had the opportunity to chat with one of the dozens of kids who hang out there almost daily. He got hooked one afternoon a few summers back and has been immersed ever since.

“I love writing comics as much as I love reading them,” said the young man, who because of a difficult situation with an estranged parent asked that I preserve his secret identity. (Some kids face titanic battles in real life.) “There used to be books that, when I was reading them, it felt like a chore to get through. Now, I feel like I can’t wait to dive into a good story.”

Diving in usually starts small, and comics may be seen as too shallow to encourage more serious reading. But if these stories can light a creative spark, then maybe reading will cease to be a chore just to “get through,” and the stories will bestow the kind of magic powers that transform the lives they touch.

Now that would really be super.

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Posted in: Comic Book Stuff