An American Editor

August 23, 2010

Literacy in the Graphic Novel Age

Recently, The Digital Reader ran a post titled “Ben Bova thinks graphic Novels are the death of literacy – I can prove he’s wrong.” The thrust of the article is that science fiction author Ben Bova thinks graphic novels demonstrate declining literacy. The Digital Reader’s rebuttal was to cite an article in Inside Higher Ed about professors whose students read comic books and/or graphic novels rather than standard textbooks for the courses with the result that the students understood the course material better.

The problem I see with the rebuttal is that it is not really a rebuttal but instead supports the original thesis: literacy is in decline.

The dictionary definition of literacy is “the quality or state of being literate.” Literate is defined as the “ability to read and write.” Implied in the definition is “with understanding” — I don’t know anyone who would say a person who can read and write but not understand is literate. If we define literacy as the ability to understand the written word, and the more and better you understand the more literate you are, then graphic novels and comics may be foundational (i.e., starting points) but are far from what is meant by literacy.

Think of it this way. Would you want your doctor to prescribe a surgical procedure for you based on a synopsis of your ailment found in a comic book or would you want your doctor to be able to read and understand the medical literature before making a recommendation? Would you want your lawyer to understand the terms of a contract you are being asked to sign only if it can be given to the lawyer to read as a comic book?

Graphic novels (which term I am using to include comic books) have a place in the learning system. Certainly they are useful introductions to reading and excellent companions to literature, but they are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of literacy. Although the graphic novel version of Moby Dick may be more interesting, it is not the same as reading the original text — it is simplified for understanding because it assumes that the reader would struggle to understand the original and because it is designed to “cut to the chase.”

Would I want to know that the president of the United States’ reading and comprehension abilities are defined by graphic novels? Not I. I want to believe that the president can read and understand complex economic documents before deciding what to do in the midst of an economic crisis; I want to believe that the generals can read understand Clausewitz before deciding on battle tactics.

Consider it from a different perspective. Prior generations had to gain minimal level of literacy in order to graduate from school, and they had to do so by reading the original works and the standard textbooks that it appears need to be reduced to graphic novels for today’s students to understand. Is that a sign of stable or increasing literacy or a sign of literacy decline?

Again, this isn’t a bashing of graphic novels. Rather it is a statement that graphic novels can form a foundation from which literacy can grow if — and that is a big if — the graphic novel reader moves from graphic novels to more traditional textbooks in their educational process. I would not want economic policy made by someone whose understanding of Keynesian theory is based on what he or she read in a Classics Illustrated comic book.

We need to separate pleasure reading from educational reading, not that the latter shouldn’t also be pleasurable. Educational reading is for a different purpose — it is to gain knowledge and understanding of a subject matter, preferably in-depth rather than surface knowledge. Graphic novels can provide surface knowledge but the lack of ability to understand the language of in-depth treatises and the need to rely on the surface knowledge in the decision-making process is a sure sign of a lack of literacy.

The ideal is to combine both, but given a one-or-the-other choice, I believe that graphic novels should be shunted aside in the educational process in favor of in-depth learning and improvement of literacy. That people read more because they read graphic novels is not the same as saying they are more literate. That students understood course material better when presented in graphic novel form is not comforting if these same students will be future decision-makers whose decisions will impact me rather than just them.



  1. […] reposted with permission from An American Editor […]


    Pingback by | The Digital Reader — August 23, 2010 @ 5:56 am | Reply

  2. This is one of those Agree/Disagree subjects for me. I completely agree with the logic and arguments presented in this posting. I also disagree, because I can think of so many people for whom achieving higher levels of literary is not an option.

    Some people simply can’t learn by reading — in which cases any medium that improves comprehension, enjoyment, curiosity, perspective, and education is a good thing. I spend a lot of time in the companionship and environments of people in diverse occupations from diverse backgrounds. Through them, I’ve learned that there are many forms of intelligence and avenues of education, most of which don’t work for me but serve just fine for them.

    Some of the smartest, wisest, and most skilled people I know have mental difficulty reading, or else just don’t like it. “Book larnin'” isn’t their way. But many of them respond deeply to audio/visual media and hands-on experience, usually accompanied by words. Other people just don’t have the equipment to attain literacy much beyond the comic-book style. For all these people, we need as many vehicles for learning and comprehension as possible. We shouldn’t consider them inadequate just because their minds don’t process the written word as well as other people’s do.

    Happily, the folks inclined to become doctors and lawyers, etc. — who need advanced literacy to properly perform their jobs — are also mentally prone to learn from the written word. The challenge lies in getting the people who are not able to do this as educated as possible through all other means, so that everyone can communicate and good things can be achieved.


    Comment by Carolyn — August 23, 2010 @ 6:33 am | Reply

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  5. Comics/graphic novels are not stepping-stones to “real literature”. They are sui generis, with words and pictures forming a unified work. The pictures aren’t there instead of more words – that’s a primitive understanding of the form. (This is true regardless of the quality of the work; there are good and bad comics, good and bad novels, and good and bad textbooks.) Whether comics work well as textbooks and how they compare to traditional texts depends on the quality of the work. Traditional textbooks are copiously illustrated with charts, figures, graphs, and photographs, so the distinction between them and comics isn’t strictly between words and images. The difference is rather that in the comic form, the illustrations act as a sequence that guides the reader through the material.

    Read the original article,, to see how this has all been blown out of proportion. The comics in question were written by a professor for his course in business management. The professor claims that “Textbooks are just plain boring [ – ] standard business textbooks use a lot of disconnected examples and irrelevant stock photos” and he is undoubtedly correct.

    Your scary example about doctors and lawyers trained on comics doesn’t hold water either. On the contrary, would you want to be treated by a doctor or assisted by a lawyer who has learned the craft only through reading textbooks? Certainly not – an essential part of their training is apprenticeship, where they learn their skills through training under the eye of more experienced practitioners.


    Comment by Hyman Rosen — August 26, 2010 @ 10:08 am | Reply

  6. “would you want to be treated by a doctor or assisted by a lawyer who has learned the craft only through reading textbooks?”

    Certainly not — especially if those textbooks didn’t contain any pictures! I seem to recall Gray’s _Anatomy_ containing a few illustrations …

    I don’t think anything should be forced into a format that doesn’t suit the content, so a graphic novel version of _Moby-Dick_ (or for that matter _Peter Rabbit_) would be unlikely to attract me, but when the original material is something like a hideously boring marketing textbook, whyever SHOULDN’T it be presented in another format? There’s little to lose, after all.


    Comment by Helen — August 29, 2010 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

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