A Public Service Announcement! ;)

A Public Service Announcement! ;)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Fightin' Fallacies: Mythbusting w/ Bucky on Pop Culture and Appropriation

While at NRC this weekend, I heard an argument/precept about teaching comics that I've heard before but have never directly commented on herein, so I thought I might finally do so.

The idea is that teachers need to be careful about how they teach comics because doing so overtly and directly in a way that might fully explicate the text might be a way of subsuming students' popular culture. The assumptions underlying the directive, as I understand them, are that youth culture shouldn't be appropriated by adults and that more children read comics than adult teachers.

There are a number of fallacies at work in such a statement, though careful teaching is always a good thing, of course. One myth is that kids read more comics than adults. American comics seem to have a history directly tied to youth culture. This is undeniable. But, since the 1930s, there have been moments when the reading market was comprised mostly of children and moments when the reading market was more diverse. For example, the crime and horror and romance comics of the 1950s were supposedly not marketed directly to child readers (but sort of the same way that Joe Camel wasn't marketed to children) but to older readers.

In the contemporary moment, the average comic book reader is believed to be an adult male in his mid-thirties. Many industry leaders are at this exact moment bemoaning the lack of child-centered comics, and companies like TOON BOOKS have sprung up to fill the void left by aging super-hero comics readers, more intellectual, graphic novel reader, and those who have always preferred the indy, not-for-kids stuff in the first place.

So, it may not be true that more kids are reading comics than adults. And if comics readership is no longer the cultural domain of children, then teaching them isn't appropriating their culture and thinking that it is can be viewed as misinformed thinking pulling on schema from a bygone era.

Another fallacy that I see as inherent in the argument is that popular culture = youth culture. While it may be true that youth culture is often, if not always, intertwined with the popular culture, that relation can not always be reversed. When Ray Browne pioneered the study of popular culture (and let us remember that there are scholars beyond education professors who study popular culture. It is its own field), he was focusing more on the elements of society that academics and others found to be "mundane," not exclusively on elements of youth and childrens' culture. Bumper stickers, advertisements, housing floor plans, wallpaper -- these are elements of popular culture that have been studied that may or may not have connections to youth culture.

I'd also like to point out that another way of viewing a teacher who integrates the study of popular culture and/or youth culture is to see the teacher as acknowledging kids' interests. Overt, direct analysis of those texts can be a way to show respect for their interests and to show how "their" texts are just as valid and important as older, more traditional texts, each of which was at one time part of the popular culture as well. As well, since adults consume youth culture too, "their" culture can be said to be "our" culture anyway.

So, I think direct, overt instruction on comics and high-level literary/artistic analysis of them in the classroom should be approached with the same care as anything else that gets taught, but I wouldn't worry too much about anyone's culture being subsumed or taking anything away from students. Sure, I've had a student tell me "You can even make a comic book boring!" during an analysis of metaphor and symbols between a comics text and a traditional text, but some students are going to balk at anything that examines things seriously. That student held the minority opinion in his class, by the way. All the other students were excited to be reading a form of literature that they viewed as valid but had never thought would be considered valued in the school setting.

Ah, when the school world and the real world mesh, it can be a wonderful thing!


Ben Villarreal said...

"You can even make a comic book boring!" seems to be my students primary complaint after a couple of weeks of reading Scott McCloud. But then, Understanding Comics is our primary text, so I have to agree with you--they'd complain about whatever book we were reading :-)

TOON Books said...

"In the contemporary moment, the average comic book reader is believed to be an adult male in his mid-thirties."
Funny. :) We are publishing for a new generation of comics readers, but more than that--we want to use comics to get kids reading! And reading more than comics! As Art Spiegelman has put it, comics can be a "gateway drug" to literacy. - Leigh

Bucky C. said...

There are actually several qualitative studies to suggest that comics are indeed a gateway, Leigh. So, it is not just a matter of "saying it makes it so," but one with the backing of actual research, which is good for all of us. :)