Professor advocates comic books’ educational value

Comic books and education are seldom regarded as anything other than natural enemies, but Jeffrey Kahan, associate professor of English at the University of La Verne, thinks that relationship should be a little friendlier.

Kahan has co-authored a book highlighting the literary merit of comic books, and held a lecture and discussion on the subject titled “Why Comic Books Can Save Us from Illiteracy” on Tuesday in the President’s Dining Room.

Kahan opened his presentation with a rather alarming bit of information: According to a study performed by the National Education Association, most American young people show little or no interest in reading “traditional” forms of literature outside of the classroom.

At the same time, however, the comic book industry reports that kids read approximately 864 million comic books per year in this country.

There are a number of theories explaining this apparent case of contradictory trends but, as Kahan pointed out, a lot more school children would likely be genuinely excited about reading if educators were more accepting of comics as genuine examples of literary artistry.

One of the advantages comics have over classical works is their ability to reflect and integrate current events and attitudes into their stories.

“The comic book world is our world and not our world,” Kahan said.

Current issues of “Captain America” have the star-spangled superhero fighting insurgents in Iraq, while in the early 1990s, “Fantastic Four” villain Victor von Doom went from Eastern European (i.e. Soviet) dictator to the crooked CEO of a multinational conglomerate.

Not only does this ability to adapt to the times make comics, as well as their movies, videogames and other spinoffs easier for kids to relate to, Kahan said, but it also makes kids think about and even openly discuss such issues.

An even more remarkable byproduct of comic book reading is children’s interest and enthusiasm toward exploring and discussing such things as plot and character development, something that the classics have rarely, if ever, been able to achieve.

But Kahan, who has read comics since he himself was a kid, thinks English departments across the country have brought this bizarre role reversal of sorts upon themselves over the years by trying to cram elements of history, sociology and other deeply analytical disciplines into their curriculums, almost inevitably overwhelming and thus souring the students’ attitudes toward traditional forms of literature.

“If we merely taught literature the way it was taught back in the ‘60s, a lot of these problems would be solved,” Kahan said.

If reactions of the roughly 20 people in attendance were any indication, then Kahan’s presentation was very well received.

“I think comic books are absolutely necessary to reach younger audiences,” said Keith Watabayashi, a senior theater major and comic book fan.

Freshman English major and fellow comic reader Sylvia Chavez agreed that the dynamic and topical nature of comics is a very powerful feature.

“The whole point of X-Men is addressing racism,” she said of the series’ premise of different people with different abilities and backgrounds working together to fight common evils.

As for the potential benefits of comics in the classroom, Kahan had but one recommendation to make: “It’s worth a try.”

Tom Anderson can be reached at tanderson1@ulv.edu.

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