Reading Capital: Graphic Novels, Typography, and Literacy

By Abate, Michelle Ann | English Journal, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Reading Capital: Graphic Novels, Typography, and Literacy


Abate, Michelle Ann, English Journal


Comics in the United States have a long and complicated history with literacy. In the 1950s, child psychologist Fredric Wertham launched his now-infamous crusade against the genre. In numerous articles and interviews, he argued that comic books had a deleterious impact on young people. "A very large proportion of children who cannot read well habitually read comic books," Wertham observed (122). He continued, "They are not really readers, but gaze mostly at the pictures, picking up a word here and there" (122). This view that comics were detrimental to children's reading ability persisted for fifty years. Consequently, they were not endorsed by parents, not purchased by libraries, and certainly not used in classrooms. As Dale Jacobs, writing for English Journal, remembered, "When I was growing up in the 1970s, I never saw comics in schools or in the public library unless they were being read surreptitiously behind the cover of a novel or other officially sanctioned book" (20).

In the opening years of the twenty-first century, however, popular perceptions about the educational potential of comics began to change. With the emergence of graphic novels, the genre was seen as playing an important role in what came to be known as multimodal forms of literacy. As Frank Serafini explains about this concept, "The texts that adolescents encounter today are often multimodal, meaning they incorporate a variety of modes, including visual images, hypertext, and graphic design elements along with written text" (342). From websites and magazines to video games and picture books, "the visual mode of image and the mode of writing . . . are combined in multiple ways to represent and construct meaning" (Pantaleo 114).

Multimodality is a core element of graphic novels. As a result, it caused the literary worth of comics to be rehabilitated. For the first time, these materials were seen as possessing clear educational value. In the words of Jacobs: "At the NCTE Annual Convention, graphic novels and comics are displayed in ever greater numbers" (19). Moreover, as he goes on to explain, "School and public libraries are building graphic novels collections to try to get adolescents into the library" (19). As a result, over the past ten years, "Comics have, indeed, emerged from the margins into the mainstream" (19).

That said, the recognition that comics and graphic novels have experienced in the twenty-first century has not been as comprehensive as this new visibility may suggest. Instead, the genre's newfound esteem has been driven in large part by the way that these texts can serve a specific classroom need: as a means to reach reluctant readers and help students struggling to demonstrate literacy. Because graphic novels feature an abundance of visual images and less prose text, they are considered more "approachable" and "less intimidating than traditional novels" (Button and Bandre 10, 11). As Meryl Jaffe explains, "For weak language learners and readers, graphic novels' concise text paired with detailed images help readers decode and comprehend the text" (2; italics in original). For these individuals, "Reading is less daunting (with less text to decode) and concise verbiage highlights effective language usage and vocabulary while the images invite and engage readers" (Jaffe 2). Consequently, these books "are often chosen by boys and struggling readers" (Button and Bandre 11).

For this reason, though graphic novels have seen an uptick in their educative value, they are still commonly regarded as secondary to prose-only texts. "As a teaching tool," Jacobs has written, "comics are seen primarily as a way to motivate through their popularity and to help slow-learning students, especially in the acquisition of reading skills" (20). When they are used in the classroom, they are often regarded "as a stepping stone to the acquisition of other, higher skills" (20).

This article challenges these viewpoints. I make the theoretical argument that many comics can be seen as requiring more advanced levels of literacy because of an important but overlooked feature: their use of all-caps lettering. …

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