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February 2, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Visualized... and Communicated

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Whenever I wander into a bookstore, which happens to occur quite frequently, I seek out the comics, the graphic novels, and the manga sections immediately. And although I might be there to see what is new, I often find myself taking time to talk to the many young readers scattered in those particular aisles.

“Ah, good choice, loved reading that one,” my ever-so-talkative self will venture.

I am usually met with something like, “Pretty good. Yeah., but [blank] is better, though.”

“The reader knows what she [or he] likes!” I will compliment.

“It’s not reading.”

My figurative-superhero-cape “Whooooosh-ing!” out from behind me, I say, “Why do you think that?”

“That’s what my teacher said. It’s just pictures.”

Without fail, everywhere I go, young readers say that their teachers, and sometimes even their parents, are telling them that to read comics, graphic novels, and / or manga is in fact not to read at all.
To read, or not to read, people seem to be wondering about these image-dominant genres.

But that is exactly the question! Let me explain.

As a professor of literacy, it is completely startling to me that there are many, many, many people who actually believe that reading comics, graphic novels, and manga is not reading. Those of us who love these image-dominant genres know differently. In fact, even modern research tells us differently. In Literacy in the New Media Age, Gunther Kress (2003) explains that we are quite literally living through the greatest communications revolution of all time. Our current situation is even more significant than the 15th-century invention of the printing press, and instead of seeing one invention as the motivating cause, today’s communication revolution sees all of the innovations of image and screen as the motivating cause. Kress writes, “The world told is a different world to the world shown.” This sentence is music to my ears. To me, it is a symphony of redemption, one that responds to those things we used to call “Comics Codes” and the voices that still today sound a lot like the Fredric Werthams of the world.

But come on, Katie! It’s just one sentence. How can we base such excitement on one sentence?

In short, since I come from the world of literacy education, I wish to write this Op-Ed as an invitational bridge between the world of education and the world of comics, graphic novels, and manga. And although there have been small inroads between our two worlds already, there is much current need for us to have better communication, for I believe that when the world of education walks hand-in-hand with the comics, graphic novels, and manga, we will form a united alliance that can finally put the misunderstandings about image-dominant genres to bed.

So I offer the worlds of comics, graphic novels, and manga the invitation to share with us in the world of education two of the most fundamental understandings about modern reading:

1. We are living during the greatest communication revolution of all time, and, as a result, we need to redefine what it means to read.

2. Because of this communication revolution, print-text literacies and image literacies now share the stage. They have costarring roles in the greatest story ever to be told about reading.

Or, as Albert Camus said so well: “A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images.”—Dr. Katie Monnin