The ever-evolving maturity of comics as literature often leads the overenthusiastic journalist to proclaim “comics-no longer kid stuff!”, or something equally effusive that may miss the point. Words and pictures together remain a great way to get young readers to practice their skills of synthesizing representations into narratives and facts, whether the text is written words or drawn images.
A sophisticated graphic novel allows a heady textual challenge for the reader without the imposing threat and heft of a large ‘serious’ book, demands the same intelligence and rewards the smart reader. And some of them are as appropriate for the young and the old. Here are five graphic novels the young reader can enjoy and learn from.
(1) “Bone” by Jeff Smith
The epic saga of Fone Bone and his brothers in a mysterious valley proves itself more than a meager kid’s comic by its sheer size alone; even adult readers may find themselves daunted by the task of thirteen hundred pages of increasingly challenging storytelling. “Bone” starts small and simple and gets bigger and bigger as it goes on, drawing readers into a less playful and more serious story as the chapters fly. For the child too young to tackle “Lord of the Rings”, this sprawling comic tale will make for a delightful summer read.
(2) “It’s a Bird” by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen
A Superman story for readers who are moving beyond simple adventures, “It’s a Bird” is the semi-autobiographical story of a comics writer asked to pen a tale of the Man of Steel, but finds the hero too lightweight for his increasingly darkening taste. Haunting images of the victims of Huntington’s Disease may prove too much for the kiddies. But a reader who’s read enough Superman to question the “why?” behind the idealistic hero, who’s ready to ask the big questions about fiction, this will prove an intriguing peek into the world of fiction and mythology. Similarly, the author and artist’s use of changing styles to mean different things provide a simple lesson in analyzing the tools of writing to provide different emotional tones.
(3) “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud
Not so much a story as a textbook-but a fun one-McCloud’s seminal text belongs on the shelf of every comics fan. McCloud deconstructs the formal elements of comics with a sophistication the art form has never before seen, and does it in a way accessible to even the youngest reader, with a friendly, enthusiastic style that encourages us to visualize the power of the comics medium taken to its limit. Recommended for the young reader who’s beginning to draw comics of his or her own.
(4) “Marvels” by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
Superhero fans will love seeing a grand and glorious history of all their favorite characters in the Marvel Universe, with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to taking in the sheer scale and power of a world where giants tread. Alex Ross’ beautiful artwork is among the most respected in the industry, and elevates every panel from mere diversion to museum piece. It’s superhero literature that can be taken seriously while still encouraging childlike imagination and wonder, rather than the practiced cynicism (or just plain realism?) of many other serious works of graphic fiction.
(5) “The Cartoon History of the Universe” by Larry Gonick
Incomplete at present, but Gonick doesn’t stray from getting deep into what subject material he does cover, from the Big Bang to the rise of life and humans to the first human civilizations and well beyond-Volume 3 ends in the Renaissance, and then we pick up with “The Cartoon History of the Modern World”. The biggest and arguably best of Gonick’s numerous educational comics, it’s a perfect balance of text and images providing facts as well as fun, not to mention a real sense of historical perspective and narrative where a lesser book might just list disconnected factoids.
We remember more of what we see and read than what we read alone. Comics can be a gateway into stronger, smarter reading for the young and the young at heart. Even a superhero adventure can be a treat for the brain as well as the eye, if you know where to look. So don’t be afraid to encourage a kid to read ‘kid stuff’. It may be just the kind of grown-up-level reading he’s been craving.