A few years ago, I stumbled upon a quote on the Kennedy Center website that has stuck with me. It delighted me so much that I have it posted on the wall of my office: “Telling stories is an essential part of being human. People everywhere, throughout history, have told and still tell stories. Whether it's to remember history, to communicate feelings, or honor an individual, telling stories helps us understand the world in which we live.”
Drops mic. Walks away.
In those three sentences is a truth that you will find repeated in resources for teaching literacy to young learners and encouraging youth to appreciate literature. You will see it in academic papers and writers' workshops. Over and over again – storytelling is an essential part of being human. In our modern era, we have a multitude of mediums available to seek out the stories of others and to tell our own. We have oral traditions and books like past generations, but we also have newer outlets like television, movies, comic books, video games, blogs, podcasts, and social media.
Stories are everywhere in our world. The challenge is finding a good one.
Lately, I've been binging on superhero stories. In the past couple of months, I've caught up on all of the super powered movies that I've missed over the past couple of years: Captain America Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man (and its sequel), X-Men Days of Future Past, and Wolverine; sometime this weekend I will be watching Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m working through the second season of Arrow on Netflix instant. I've kept up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, and Constantine. My oldest and I finished watching the last few episodes of Avengers Assemble. I've read a Guardians of the Galaxy graphic novel and am midway through an Avengers graphic novel.
For most of my life (not to mention the first few decades of their existence before I entered planet earth) comic books were seen as a subculture reserved for nerds and social misfits. There was an idea that reading comic books made you some sort of miscreant. The crossover appeal to wider markets were either complete failures (Howard the Duck) or contrived as campy comedies (60s era Batman TV show). It hasn't been until recent years the major studios began to take comic books seriously and recognized their mainstream appeal. Better scripts, bigger budgets, more recognizable names cast as lead actors.
Suddenly, it's cool to be a geek.
My kids are lucky. They can talk about superheroes at school without all of the other kids labeling them as dorks. They have nearly 80 years worth of comics available to read. Their favorite characters are being portrayed as worthy role models. The actors that play these characters are being recognized for their charitable work, their kindness, and their generosity. Books featuring comic heroes are printed at every reading level from pre-k through high school. Comic books are more accessible and acceptable now than ever before.
More so, comic books are beginning to be viewed as more than entertainment. Educators are seeing value in them as powerful methods to help kids become better students. Studies are finding that kids who read comic books tend to be more creative and have better vocabularies than kids that don't read comic books. These stories are tools for academic achievement and weapons to fight against illiteracy – nonprofit foundations are finding success in helping low-income and developmentally disabled kids learn to read by using comics. One study even suggested that the vocabulary in comic books is written at a higher grade level than newspapers due to having less space to convey big ideas; this makes comics more complex yet laid out in a visual format that makes sense to kids – even if they don't understand a word, those visual cues help them understand the context and meaning far more than in picture free texts. Despite the differences between comic book stories and traditional literature, comic books are equally valid. They follow the same literary devices as other forms of fiction: character development, plot arcs of conflict to climax and resolution, setting and world building, themes and symbolism.
With that in mind, last weekend provided a moment of pride when I caught my daughter reading her older brother's Guardians of the Galaxy comic book. She identifies with Gamora (the dangerous girl), Rocket (the sarcastic raccoon) and Groot (the friendly yet fiercely protective sentient tree). It was not an easy read for her. She struggled pronouncing some words and frequently asked me to help her sound out a word or tell her the definition of other words. But she made the effort and smiled the whole time.
I am happy to see my kids reading and enjoying comic books. Not just for the reasons I listed above. Yes, it sparks their creativity, expands their vocabulary, and encourages them to enjoy reading. But comic books are still more than that. Comic books carry on the tradition of storytelling that is essential to human existence. This year is Batman’s 75th anniversary, but superheroes are much older. If you take a serious look at human history, you will find that superheroes have been a central aspect of the stories we've told since our ancestors began telling stories.
The ancient Jews had Moses and Abraham, figures that play predominant roles in three different religions. The New Testament book of Hebrews listed the heroes of the faith – people who “conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” The Egyptians had Isis, Osiris, and Ra. The Greeks had their gods and demigods. The far east had stories of Genghis Khan, Emperor Qin, the samurai, the shoguns, and ronins. The middle ages produced exaggerated stories of the Templars and Europe gave us tales of fairy godmothers, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. Even America’s Wild West had their tall tales of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill. All superheroes in one form or another.
Throughout time, people from different cultures all over the world have used these stories to remember their histories. They expressed their emotions through these stories. They told and retold these stories to honor individuals. These stories helped them to understand their world.
More than any others, these stories of superheroes communicate what it means to be human – even when the characters featured are more than human. We can't be superhuman ourselves, but we see in them qualities that we desire. Honor. Courage. Strength. Passion. Loyalty. Self sacrifice. Dedication. The ability to fly. Whether it is Jason and the Argonauts quest for the golden fleece or Peter Parker's struggles balancing power and responsibility, superheroes reveal our humanity. They inspire us to be better people. Telling these stories is an essential part of being human.
My older son, inspired by his favorite superhero, Captain America.