Let me start with a short anecdote. Years ago, I met a friend of the family and he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up (what an onerous question!). My eventual response was “I want to be a fiction writer.” His response wasn’t what I anticipated. He said something like, “Oh, so are you going to change your name?” At first I thought he meant because “Corey Pung” hardly sounds like an author’s name, and I should go for something more all-American as my moniker. In actuality, it turned out that he thought most writers were women since most readers were women.
Of course, in reality, while more women do read novels than men, a majority of writers are male–a quick glance through your local book store will prove that. Still, somehow American culture suggests that reading is a feminine pastime. Girls frequently develop strong reading habits before boys, and girls are doing better academically in general. In Hawaii where I spent a portion of my life, twice as many girls went to college than boys. While I’m happy to see women’s education making such bounds, I have to wonder, what about the boys?
I would argue that what prevents boys from developing good reading habits early in life isn’t genetic at all–it’s the reading material. A lot of juvenile and young adult books focus on emotional discoveries, so much so that boys lose interest early on. So many novels I can remember reading (or trying to read) 15 years ago involved pre-teens coping with their parents’ divorce or having their own youthful hearts broken.
Now, before you label me a misogynist, let me just say that I know for certain that girls care about more than just their emotions, and that boys have emotions too, but unfortunately, society in general doesn’t think that way. Girls are expected to be in touch with their feelings and to seek romance, while boys are expected to be adventurous as children and stoical as adults. So much of childhood revolves around being what society wants you to be, while I would say true identity doesn’t develop until the coming-of-age period from the late teen years to adulthood. The problem is, if someone doesn’t develop reading habits early on, they may never do it later.
This brings me back to the topic of comics. I’m generalizing here, but comics as a medium are not all about emotions. In most cases, the emotional aspects are marginalized. Comics are about action. Part of the reason why we draw comics at all is to show the visceral side of our stories. Superheroes are the prototypes for adulthood, or rather, superheroes are who we want to be when we grow up. We want to move to the city, help people, hold a lot of responsibility, yet have a softer side we keep secret and only show to our own Lois Lanes.
Oddly enough, my first exposure to the world of relationships was in the pages of Spider-Man. In the 90s, Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker’s long on-again-off-again relationship gave me some inkling of what real romances were like (never mind that Peter was a superhero and MJ a supermodel!). Later, when I started obsessing over the Star Wars Extended Universe books, Han Solo and Princess Leia gave my young mind an example of a more stable and commited relationship. Through those outlets, I was able to give free reign to my emotions while reading about the things boys are supposed to care about.
Are comics and sci-fi books perfect reading material for boys? Not exactly. Looking back, the depictions of women in some of the books were highly reprehensible. Are they seriously detrimental? Hardly. It doesn’t take much working knowledge of the world to realize that so much of what goes on in comics or sci-fi novels is purely hoky nonsense.
Unfortunately, comics are still widely frowned upon in schools and sci-fi novels aren’t considered “real books” by many. I was greatly dismayed to hear that the 11 year old girl I occasionally babysit was reprimanded by her teacher for reading Bone as part of her assignment to read 20 minutes a night. What in the world is wrong with reading Bone? It’s a complex story featuring a large cast, multiple plots and subplots, and the story spans around 1,000 pages. Should it be disqualified as a “book” because it’s told in pictures? Since Bone wasn’t considered reading material, the 11 year old went and read novelizations of Hanna-Montana and passed. Good night world.
My main argument here is that comics should be accepted as decent reading material because it at least gets children–especially boys–reading. If you’re a parent and think comics might just be what your child needs to develop reading habits, yet disapprove of the occasional lapses in good taste that appear in superhero series, take some time to peruse what else is out there. Calvin and Hobbes is a great comic for young boys, as the heroes are two of the most physically active characters in comics. Other good comics for kids include Mutts and Marvel’s Wizard of Oz series. I’ve written an article titled How to Help Your Kids Pick Out Comics that should be helpful.
In my own life, I went from reading comics to reading Shakespeare, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, various books of philosophy, and thousands of poems–but I don’t know if I would have ever been able to read any of those things without first developing my reading habits through comic books. I have now started a career in writing, and I have published two books of my own, The Madness of Art: Short Stories and A Rapturous Occasion. Again, I’m indebted to comics.
What’s your opinion about why boys like comics?