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August 23, 2009

Scooby-Doo and Other Goodwill Ambassadors


Question: Can “non-educational” comics and graphic novels actually teach anything?

A few years ago, I was standing in front of a large group of high-school students, many of whom eyed me with practiced indifference, boredom, and a pinch of disdain. Whatever genuine interest and curiosity they may have felt was successfully masked behind their desire to be part of a collective peer consciousness.
This was a familiar scene to me. I was the older dude who might know something about comics, but if I was worthy of their time—I’d better prove it fast. Ah, youth.
Anyway, their teacher introduced me and rattled off a little of my reason for being there. I’d asked him to keep it brief. Then he stepped back, “out of the line of fire, and released the lions.” Some of the kids were average students. A few were the scholarly type. But many were the ones teachers refer to as “difficult,” “challenged,” “problems,” “wise guys,” etc. Why I mention this will be revealed shortly.
I began my own style of introduction, a micro bio, a couple of quick job titles and terminologies used in the comics industry, and a little Q&A to test the interactive waters. Then, after recovering from losing a few points when I admitted I didn’t draw comics, I mentioned some of the titles I’d written. Blackjack, my own creation, raised an eyebrow, possibly two. Batman got a couple of boys to lean forward in their chairs. Superman fostered the question did I write the movie or TV shows. “No,” I replied honestly and watched the points meter dip another notch.
When I mentioned Tarzan, I heard a few, “What?!” I could imagine what the Q&A on that topic would be like later.
Then I came to the title I was working on at the time. When I said the name, eyebrows raised, arched, and tangled. Several girls openly muttered, “I read those.” Someone asked if I wrote the TV show. And about five of the tough, ain’t-moved-by-nothin’, hardboiled crowd dropped their personas for a split second and uttered, “You write…Scooby?”
For a moment, we were one.
I’ve had this experience many times since that day and often mused how this would work in a particularly heated session at the UN or some international border dispute. Just as war appeared inevitable, ushers began handing out copies of Scooby-Doo to the delegates (in the appropriate language, of course). Soon, smiles light every face and someone breaks into an impression of the greatest Dane of all.
Hey, it could happen.
What is it about this goofy dog that has lifted him to the iconic level of universal appeal, alongside Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Mother Teresa? I mean, sure, he holds duel citizenship in animation and comics.
Imagine, with a “key” to so many homes, what joy, laughter, and life lessons has he shared with us?
Yes, I said life lessons.
Let’s see… Help everyone, no matter where they come from. Work as a team. Every problem has a solution. No matter how scared you are, never leave a teammate behind. It pays to be smart. At some time or another…face your fears.
Sure, we need our favorite comics and graphic novels for entertainment and escape, but we cannot ignore how they become part of our lives in other ways. Reading about geeky Peter Parker allowed many kids to feel they were not the only ones who were bullied, ignored, or unpopular. And once he donned the guise of Spider-Man, we shared the thrill of his power and courage. Many of us learned right along with him (or should have) that, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Some of the best Captain America and Superman stories deal with issues of right and wrong, faith, patriotism, and blind justice, to name a few. And there are numerous independent books that run the gamut of human experiences.
In or out of the classroom, there are lessons to be learned and material for discussion in a number of well-written comics, whether they are mainstream or not. The trick is to seek them out the same way we shop for anything else. Read reviews, talk to other patrons, check out samples—in other words…squeeze the Charmin.

Adios for now.