My son is obsessed by comics at the moment. When I say comics I don’t mean graphic novels, which are a whole different thing, although he also loves Asterix with an unholy passion. Let this never be forgotten.
When I say comics I really mean comics; The Beano and The Dandy are his two favourites and he devours them. Luckily for him, as my mum is an antique dealer in books and paper, she quite often comes across stacks of vintage comics and once she’s frisked them to see if there’s going to be the holy grail of paper, she hands them over to him. For his birthday, for example, he got given a giant, plastic container of vintage Beanos’ from the Eighties and Nineties. He is steadily making his way through them, and they drift about his room like snow.
He carries them to the breakfast table. He carries them to the toilet (in the age old tradition of men everywhere). He is never without a Beano.
The Beano is still alive and well, so if you don’t have access to vintage, there are plenty of new Beanos around. There are also annuals galore, particularly in charity shops and second hand book shops.
There is a lot of snobbery over what children should read. Some people think comics are a waste of time and don’t teach children anything because they’re not ‘real ‘books. No, they’re comics and they have value in and of themselves.
I admit to having somewhat of an issue with modern comics. I am thinking here of the ones that are exorbitantly priced and which always have some kind of plastic tat stuck to the front cover in such a way that when you try to remove it you take half the comic apart. I dislike them, mainly because they are full of adverts and very few stories. I also think that for the money they cost you could buy an actual book for the price of two comics. If you buy second hand books you can buy several books for the price of one comic.
Old style comics however are very different. They are packed with content, and in their day were deliberately affordable for children, pitched at pocket money earners. I used to be allowed one comic delivered to our house a week by the paper man. I started with Jack and Jill, moved on to Twinkle, spent many years glued to The Beano, The Dandy and offshoots like Whizzer and Chips. Eventually I moved on to more girly fare, although never Jackie. I moved from there to Smash Hits and Just Seventeen. It was the heyday of such publications and I lapped them up. Just like my son I used to buy second hand copies from rummage sales and charity shops and they drifted in great piles in my room.
I did, as you know, read many other things alongside them, but comics were great. Comics still are great. So, just in case you’re wondering, here’s a few of the reasons I am delighted my son is reading so many of them, apart from the fact that I can borrow them!
The language of vintage comics is very different from the language we use in contemporary publications. Reading and asking questions about these words and phrases, teaches children a lot. I grew up on a diet of old fashioned books that stood me in excellent stead for approaching things like the Victorian novel. I was already used to strange words and sentences and ideas and things that no longer existed in my world. My early introduction to relatively archaic language was fantastic. It works the same with comics.
The format and layout of comics is very particular. They have their own rhythms and traditions, and they have to be learned, just like the sonnet form, or the triple decker novel. The comic form layout is particularly helpful for children with learning difficulties who might struggle with small, left to right lines of print with no breaks and no illustrations. Depending on how the panels are set out, you really need to be able to orient yourself on the page. It’s a great skill, and with graphic novels on the rise, one that should be learned as early as possible. If they have problems with font size, give them a magnifying glass and let them have at it.
If you get really stuck and your child desperately wants to read them but find them too small and fiddly, blow up the pages using a photocopier. It works a treat.
The layout also helps with things like understanding how to build narrative. The panels and how they are arranged can be key to helping a child when it comes to the building blocks of story. Comics pare the story back to the basics and then add the fun, exciting stuff. They can teach you how to understand what is absolutely necessary for your story to work, and how to go about putting it together.
The layout of comics is basically the same as the layout for storyboarding a film or a cartoon. If you have dreams of your child working for Disney or Pixar, buy them comics and get them started now.
The jokes though, are what really make comics so valuable. Teaching children humour is very, very hard, as any parent who has tried to teach a child a joke, and why it is a joke will attest. Comics are packed full of them, and they take all sorts of forms. They teach children about punning and language manipulation, slapstick, visual jokes and sometimes more sophisticated longer gags, as an entire story might work up to a particular punch line. My son is obsessed by the jokes in the comics he reads. At first he would read everything solemnly because he didn’t really understand, and then, as he immersed himself in their world, he gradually began to giggle, and then to laugh, and now he reads out whole jokes to us at every opportunity, whether we like it or not.
Generally the jokes are terrible, so we groan. This then leads him into a lengthy explanation of why they are funny, which is exactly what I want him to do. Without being consciously aware of it, he is doing something incredibly sophisticated. he is unpicking language and showing us the mechanics of how words work when you put them together in a certain way.
So, if you come across some vintage comics on your travels, or a dusty old Beano annual, maybe it’s time to dust it off and use it in your tool box for helping your children enjoy the language of fun. Plus, you get to read The Bash Street Kids.