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June 1, 2016

Comics-Featured
THE SECRET HISTORY OF COMIC BOOKS IN THE CLASSROOM

Josh Elder, comic book writer (Mail Order Ninja) and founder of the educational nonprofit Reading With Pictures, has come by to share the secret history of comic books in the classroom and how Reading With Pictures is trying to write a brand-new chapter.

Comic books and graphic novels are becoming more and more common in classrooms the world over. My organization, Reading With Pictures, is dedicated to helping that process along, but we’re just part of a grand tradition that stretches back to the dawn of the comic book industry itself. Maxwell C. Gaines, a former high school principal in the Bronx, is credited with creating the first “comic book” in 1933 when he bound a series of newspaper comic strips together into a single book called Famous Funnies. It was an immediate hit, and Gaines soon found himself in the comic book business!

Only Gaines remained a teacher at heart, so with the money he made from acquiring a wild character in blue tights and a red cape who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, he founded a publishing company of his own called Educational Comics, or EC. With titles like Picture Stories from American History, Gaines attempted to use the medium’s inherent appeal to kids to teach them a little something in the process. Then Gaines passed away unexpectedly. This left his son Bill, who was studying to become a teacher himself, to inherit the family business. The younger Gaines didn’t share his father’s enthusiasm for the educational market, renaming the company Entertaining Comics and shifting the focus to macabre titles like Tales from the Crypt or satire like MAD Magazine.

With EC out of the picture, other companies started producing educational fare to fill the void. Chief among them was Classics Illustrated, which produced comic book adaptations of the great works of literature. At its peak, Classics Illustrated boasted print runs of 262,000 copies per issue, and its comics were the essential ingredient in countless last-minute cram sessions in English classes countrywide. And while Gaines may have left the educational comics business for more commercial fare, another successful commercial cartoonist, Will Eisner, took his career in the opposite direction.

Eisner, creator of the popular newspaper comic strip The Spirit, was drafted into the Army at the onset of WWII. His art skills were soon put to use creating training manuals, and while the top brass doubted that comics could possibly be effective as teaching tools, an efficiency study by the University of Chicago showed conclusively that Eisner’s comic-based manuals were superior in every way to the traditional alternatives. In fact, the manuals were so successful that Eisner continued to develop them for the military as a civilian contractor for over 20 years after mustering out of the service! Eisner would of course go on to create A Contract with God, widely considered to be the first graphic novel, and to lend his name to the Eisner Awards, the comics equivalent of the Oscars. Still, it was his work in education that arguably had the most impact. At least according to the testimonials of countless soldiers who credited Eisner’s manuals for keeping them alive in a warzone.

Today, the role of comics in the classroom is still a matter of contentious debate. However, new research is constantly rediscovering what the Army learned a half-century ago: comics work. Their multi-modal structure makes complex ideas and processes of all types more accessible, aiding in both immediate comprehension and long-term retention. Reading With Pictures is doing its part to advance the debate by designing The Graphic Textbook, a series of fiction and nonfiction short stories (with a creative team that includes several Eisner winners) aligned with Common Core Standards and tied to a major impact study overseen by Northwestern University.

We’re funding the book entirely through crowdsourced pre-orders on Kickstarter from folks just like YOU! So just click here if you’d like to pre-order and become a part of the study or go to our website to learn more about all the exciting things that we’re doing to continue the work of Gaines, Eisner, and so many more by bringing comics into the classroom!

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