On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Literacy is a load of bollocks. Sort of.
Posted on March 25, 2015
March 25, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column about comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.
There’s a commonly accepted narrative around literacy, particularly early literacy, that goes something like this:
A baby or toddler begins with books composed almost entirely of pictures.
The kid grows up a bit, becomes more comfortable with written language, and moves onto books with simple sentences. Often there are baby animals involved.
The child progresses yet further, onto books composed almost entirely of prose, with occasional pictures.
Finally, the last few pictures fall away, and the child reads, understands, and considers the meaning of books comprised entirely of prose, with not a picture in sight, except maybe on the cover. The process is completed, and that child is now considered literate.
Of course, this is a colossal stereotype, and people come to reading at all ages, and through other methods, but it’s a stereotype for a reason, because it’s far and away the dominant method (and narrative) of teaching literacy in the anglophone world.
It’s also complete bollocks.
This is a method of teaching literacy, but it’s a radically constrained kind of literacy. Essentially, the educational and cultural focus on some kind of progression from pictures to prose is framed as such because the written word takes primacy in so much of our economy, or at least in the parts of the economy which are considered prestigious.
Basically, our culture considers communication that combines images with words to be intellectually inferior. Comics are for kids and people who never grew up, apart from a handful of fancy ones that get fawned over in occasional broadsheet articles.
You know what though? Comics are not an inferior medium, and never have been. In fact, we’re demonstrably better at some things than prose, film, theatre, and the rest. Comics kick the arse off all other storytelling media when it comes to action-oriented science fiction and fantasy, for example. We have the visual stimuli that delivers a visceral lizard-brain response during action sequences, trumping prose, and we don’t need a couple of hundred people and millions of dollars to do it, unlike film and TV.
Conversely, comics are utter shite at sound. Music, character inflections and accents, and sound effects (although we get rad trying!), are all an uphill struggle in comics. Film and TV shit all over us on those fronts. Likewise, prose absolutely shreds at internal monologue. And that’s fine.
It’s okay to be awesome at some things, and crap at others. All mediums are like that. The difference is that we’re talked down to because our entire culture relates stories with pictures with childishness. Except journalism for some reason, when it’s generally accepted that pictures are better at conveying some types of information than prose.
Fucking journalism, lucky bastards.
I’ve run out of rant now, but come back next week when I promise to try and write something coherent.