From Rockets to Rainbows

By Klein, Sheri | School Arts, May 1993 | Go to article overview

From Rockets to Rainbows

Klein, Sheri, School Arts

Rockets and rainbows are familiar images which find their way into children's drawings and narratives. This past year, I taught comic bookmaking classes to children in Indiana University's Saturday Art Class program. This experience gave me the unique opportunity to see these familiar images become integrated with students' personal texts. The students' satisfaction in the creation of these personal narratives confirmed for me that comic bookmaking has an important place in a visual arts curriculum.

A Mirror to Society

The enthusiasm for comics by children has not always been shared by teachers and parents. Education literature of the 1940s presents views of comics as fascist, vicious and as contributing to juvenile delinquency. A classic study in support of the idea that comic books contribute to juvenile delinquency is cited in Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954). A similar contemporary view is expressed in Closing of the American Mind (1989) which criticizes popular culture as causing a "spiritual paralysis among today's youth. If you consider comic books as a form of popular culture as I do, these views have a negative association for teaching popular culture in a curriculum.

Despite these criticisms, comics and comic books are a significant part of American culture. From its birth at the turn of the century, comics have held up a mirror to society. The greatest comic strips are replete with both significant issues and historical movements--from civil rights to feminism. In short, a reading of American comics is a reading of twentieth-century social history. Until recently, it has been sadly overlooked for its artistic merits as a visual art form.

High Interest

Why teach a comic bookmaking project in a visual arts curriculum? Comics successfully capture the imagination of elementary students. As far back as 1909, a German researcher recognized that the picture-story, or visual narrative, was an important art form for children. Studies and observations show that children enjoy looking at and making comics. A 1941 study of children's interest in comic books revealed that both girls and boys like to make original comics; a tendency was clearly shown in fourth through sixth graders.

Bookmaking is also a project that elementary students view with enthusiasm. A novel and challenging project, comic bookmaking allows students to create a portable work of art that sets the stage for looking and talking about narrative-art painting traditions.

The Visual Narrative

No other narrative art form could be more familiar, accessible, or such an integral part of our American culture than comics. An estimated one-hundred million Americans enjoy the comics in daily newspapers, and more than two-hundred million comic books are published every year. Today, there are over 300 comic-book publishers, and 10,000 comic-book titles to choose from.

Studying comics as a contemporary narrative art form can develop art skills and a sense of humor. They can help children to generate their own narratives, utilizing themes of universal appeal. From the beginning, comics have concentrated on adventure and fantasy, thus lending themselves to a storytelling approach. Comics as modern-day narrative have a long tradition in art history stretching back to the merging of image and text in Egyptian hieroglyphics and illuminated manuscripts. The comic influence in modern art can be seen in the work of Chicago artists Karl Wirsum and Jim Nutt, who produced comic-book catalogs full of puns, satire and misspellings to accompany their painting exhibitions in the 1960s. Painters Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and graffiti artists transformed narrative painting by incorporating cartoon and television comic images in their works. Some noted twentieth-century painters have also been cartoonists. Franz Kline produced comics as a student; Lionel Feininger produced short-lived strips for the Chicago Tribune; and Philip Guston produced comics for the Los Angeles Times in the 1930s. …

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