Seduction of the Innocent
5. Retooling for Illiteracy
The Influence of Comic Books on Reading
Reading maketh a full man
While we were carrying out our investigations on the effects of comic books, gathering more and more cases, following up old ones and analyzing the new comic books themselves, there were changes going on. Not that crime comics got any better - that was believed only by those who did not study them.
One interesting new development was that whole comic books and comic-book stories appeared in other publications that did not look like comic books from outside. Sometimes a comic book would be sold as a comic as usual, but would also appear, without its cover, in an ordinary magazine. Thus the reader is relieved of the trouble of tackling connected text and can peruse at least some of the stories in the magazine by the simple picture-gazing method appropriate to the comic book format. Or maybe the idea is that the young adult readers of such a magazine have barely graduated from comic books and find regular reading too hard. A regular twenty-five-cent pulp magazine, for example, has in the middle of it a whole sexy science-fiction comic book, which alone and under a different title sells for ten cents. When the enticing blonde heroine says: Keep those paws to yourself, space-rat! the magazine reader can save himself the effort of reading. It is clear from the picture what is meant. The magazine prints some enthusiastic responses from readers to the comic-book section innovation.
"Your comic section is wonderful," writes one. "Being only 16 years old," writes another, "I just love your illustrated section. Please make it longer."
This undercover extension of the comic book format has also spread to what on the outside appear to be regular magazines in the children's field. Children's Digest, published by Parents' Magazine at the stiff price of thirty-five cents, contains sections in typical comic-book form with bad colors and crowded balloons. The text has the comic-book flavor, too.
A similar children's magazine, Tween Age Digest, at twenty-five cents, also looks like a regular magazine, but has comic-book sections. One of these is a supercondensed comic-book version of Don Quixote. You see him lying on the ground: "The servants beat Don Quixote mercilessly and although he swore vengeance he was helpless as a beetle on his back."
When a publisher was asked recently about this spreading of the comic-book style to regular publications he answered: That is simple. We are retooling for illiteracy.
All the negative effects of crime comics on children in the intellectual, emotional and volitional spheres are intensified by the harm done in the perceptual sphere. Comic books are death on reading.
The dawn of civilization was marked by the invention of writing. Reading, therefore, is not only one of the cornerstones of civilized life, it is also one of the main foundations of a child's adjustment to it.
Children are like flowers. If the soil is good and the weather is not too catastrophic, they will grow up well enough. You do not have to threaten them, you do not have to psychoanalyze them, and you do not have to punish them any more than wind and storm punish flowers. But there are some things you have to bring to them, teach them, patiently and expertly. The most important of these is reading. A readiness to learn to read is developed by healthy children spontaneously. But for the reading process, and especially for the habit of reading, comprehending, assimilating and utilizing the printed word, the child requires the help of his elders.
When we indulge in huge generalizations in discussing such questions as why people act this way or that, why they believe or tolerate this or that, or the other, we usually forget the simple question of why it is that so many people cannot read properly. Statistics on illiteracy indicate not only that many people do not read books, but also that many cannot read well enough to absorb a book or an average magazine article. According to Ruth McCoy Harris, in an article on reading, one out of twenty five Ainericans cannot read at all, and three out of five adults "do not read well. Millions read nothing but the comics."
Reading difficulties in childhood constitute one of the most important areas of mental hygiene. This has been recognized by the establishing of what Dr. Stella Center, a remedial-reading expert, calls "a new institution in the educational world," reading clinics. Reading clinics are unfortunately very few, children with reading difficulties unbelievably numerous. According to a survey made by a committee and presented at the Secondary Education Board in 1951, 5 per cent to 10 per cent of high school children and college students are so deficient in reading that they need individual remedial instruction, and an additional 10 per cent to 15 per cent read so poorly that small group instruction for them is desirable. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 12 per cent of all American children fail in learning to read as well as the average of their class.
A survey sponsored by the New York City Association of Teachers of English and the New York City Association of Teachers of Speech, made public in 1952, reveals these significant data: of students entering high school as freshmen, 33 per cent are retarded at least one year in reading; by the time these students have reached the fifth term the percentage has risen to 40 per cent. Of the children routinely referred to the Queens General Hospital Mental Hygiene Clinic for any reason, every eighth child had a reading problem. Sometimes this had not been recognized before either by teacher or parents, and the child had been punished without the root of his difficulties being known to him or his guardians.
Reading troubles in children are on the increase. An important cause of this increase is the comic book. A very large proportion of children who cannot read well habitually read comic books. They are not really readers, but gaze mostly at the pictures, picking up a word here and there. Among the worst readers is a very high percentage of comic-book addicts who spend very much time "reading" comic books. They are book worms without books.
Parents and other adults are often deceived into believing the children can read because they "read so many comics." In teaching children to read, the schools have to compete with the pictures of comic books. Low-grade literacy is the long-range result. One of the Lafargue researchers, a physician, visited the library of a public school. There were about thirty boys there. Two of them were reading newspapers and eleven of them were reading comic books.
Scientific understanding of reading disorders requires a knowledge of the research done on reading during the last few decades, of brain pathology, of the modern psychological tests - general, projective and special reading tests - a psychiatric understanding of children, and a concrete acquaintance with the social conditions of children and the educational process that affects them.
Reading is not a circumscribed, isolated function of the brain, but a highly complex performance. Visual comprehension contains many more abstract elements than, for example, motor behavior. Psychologically speaking, reading is a very high performance. To see a real apple and try to grasp it is much simpler than to read the word apple, which is on the one hand an abstraction and yet has potentially many associations not only visually but also in the sphere of hearing, touch, smell and taste.
Reading disorders are much more frequent in some countries than in others - in the United States and England, for example, rather than in Germany. In a study of 51,000 children in the schools of Munich, contrary to expectation, only ten were found (ages ten to fourteen) with serious reading disorders. So it is not accidental that most of the research in this field has been done in England and the United States. The difference in frequency may have little to do with the methods of examination or the methods used in teaching reading, or with any differences between German and English and American children. It is the result of differences in the language itself. In the English language, spelling is much more difficult because the spelling and the sound may be so different. The child has to learn to pronounce a word differently from what it seems to be according to its spelling. The letter a, for instance, has to be pronounced differently in different words, while for the child learning to read in German the letter a has only one visual vocal association. In English, the letter umay represent twenty-four different sounds.
The process of reading requires intactness of complex brain mechanisms which regulate the functions of organization (putting things in order), direction, spatial orientation and association between different special sense data. If a child has a weakness in this respect, it will not show up in any simple performance. It may be outgrown, remedied by experience or compensated for. If, however, a very high level of performance is demanded, such as reading and knowing the spelling and sound of such words as through and trough, bow and bough, the symptom that appears on the surface may be a reading disability.
Many children whose trouble lies in the field of reading are wrongly diagnosed. This is due primarily to the fact that the frustration from the reading failure leads to all kinds of other emotional troubles. There is in fact a vicious circle. Emotional factors may lead to reading difficulties and chronic reading failure may cause emotional disturbances. Often behavior disorders clear up when the reading disorder is cured, and reading improves when emotional problems are straightened out. In my routine work over many years in mental hygiene clinics I have found childen with reading disability wrongly committed to institutions for mental defectives, regarded as psychopathic or incorrigible without any regard for their reading disability, or given the facile and so often false diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia. These erroneous diagnoses, as well as the prevalent neglect of children's reading difficulties, are the more deplorabie because most of these children could be helped.
The diagnosis of reading disorders is established by special reading tests, the selection of tests being adapted to the individual case, and the test results evaluated in combination with a general psychiatric and social study of the child.
There is a high correlation between intelligence, vocabulary and reading. Comic-book readers are handicapped in vocabulary building because in comics all the emphasis is on the visual image and not on the proper word. These children often know all that they should not know about torture, but are unable to read or spell the word. For practical purposes a basis for diagnosis, as well as therapy, is intelligence. The child with reduced intelligence whose reading level is up to the level of his intelligence, but below expectancy for his age and grade, is considered a case of reading retardation.
When the child's reading level is below his mental level, the condition is regarded as a reading disability. If the reading ability of a very bright child is average for his age and grade, he is actually functioning below his potentialities for learning and deserves special remedial attention, because he is not up to his reading grade level according to tests.
The word specific is sometimes added to reading disability and the diagnostic label "specific reading disability" used. But this addition means very little. Usually the disorder is not specific, although it does require specific treatment, that is, remedial-reading training. Lack of interest in reading is often a reaction to failure in reading, a symptom indicating that other causal factors are operating in the creation of a reading problem. It may be a reaction to dislike or fear of school, pointing to more serious underlying difficulties. Failure in reading occurs not infrequently because a child has developed the illusion that he can read because he can follow a comic-book story from the pictures with the occasional reading of a word or two in the balloons. The bad reading and/or language habits he develops from such reading interfere with laying the foundation for proper reading habits. The basis of a child's future reading career is usually laid down in the first and second grades. It is at this stage that comic books do the greatest harm with respect to reading. Children who may be most efficient in other spheres get more and more behind in mastering the reading process. Instead of learning good reading habits they acquire the habit of not reading. They become slow readers, meanwhile continuing to read their comic books.
The hereditary factor has been grossly exaggerated. The theories according to which reading disabilities are chiefly due to heredity express the most reactionary attitude. They relieve us of the responsibility, which is so necessary for purposes of prevention, to evaluate properly the psychological and social factors.
The most significant causes of reading difficulties are: visual defects - particularly far-sightedness and poor fusion resulting frorn eye-muscle imbalance; auditory defects; speech defects; prolonged illness; frequent absences from school; frequent changes of school; emotional maladjustment; foreign language background; home conditions in their socio-economic and emotional aspects; poor teaching; lack of reading readiness.
Reading readiness is a most important concept. It is the acquired ability to profit from reading. In the British literature on reading disabilities it is spoken of as "timing." It is characterized by such factors as intellectual development, visual and auditory perception, language development, background of experience and social behavior.
This is precisely one of the points where comic books are so harmful. They retard or even interfere with reading readiness. In this they may act as a prime causal factor or merely as an aggravating influence. Comic-book reading is an inadequate experience. The child fastens on one experience at the expense of others. If he is given these wrong or harmful experiences, he loses out on constructive experiences.
An important area where comic books do specific harm is the acquisition of fluent left-to-right eye movements, which is so indispensable for good reading. The eyes have to form the habit of going from left to right on the printed line, then returning quickly to the left at a point slightly lower. Reversal tendencies and confusions are common among children at the age of six. As better reading habits are acquired, including the all-important left-to-right movements, reversals and other errors gradually diminish and may automatically disappear. It is different with the comic-book reader who acquires the habit of reading irregular bits of printing here and there in balloons instead of complete lines from left to right.
The best understanding of reading difficulties is obtained in the process of therapy. Success may be achieved by a variety of methods. The patient work of the remedial-reading teacher gets the best results if it is combined with understanding psychotherapy, constructive social service work and tactful family counseling. The reading teacher should work just a little below the child's level, so that the child will not get discouraged and will start emotionally with a successful and reassuring experience from the beginning. Comic-book reading is nowadays a real (though often not recognized) obstacle to therapy, for it is difficult - if not impossible - to keep a child away from comic books which are so temptingly displayed wherever he goes.
I have had occasion to study the reading problem specifically on over one hundred cases studied and treated at the Remedial Reading Clinic which I founded and organized at the Queens General Hospital and which functions under the direction of a trained remedial reading teacher. These children represented about every variety of reading disorder, and the results of their treatment were highly encouraging. The general gains they made were due chiefly to overcoming resistance to reading, increased security and confidence and amount of work accomplished. In the last respect comic-book readers are also handicapped. If a child can read good books, he can talk or even brag about it to his parents and others. The sort of community of interest established between children, and between them and adults, by reading and knowing the same stories and classics is one of the benefits derived by children from reading, and one that is lost to comic-book readers. They also lose the interest of being read to, because looking at pictures has robbed them of the art of listening. They cannot tell adults what they read and win approval by showing that they know by their own effort something that is interesting to adults. They are left with disjointed bits of reading about banks robbed and girls bound and beaten which are better left undiscussed with parents.
Reading disorders existed, of course, long before comic books. We know that they are due to a great variety of factors, but among these factors for the present-day child comic books have a definite place. Moreover reading difficulties among children have increased and are continuing to increase with the rise of the comic book.
The comic-book industry has successfully spread the fantastic idea that comic books are actually good for children's reading. So the fundamental question arises, How many children suffering from reading disorders are comic-book readers? 'The answer is simple. Most of them are. Comic books, especially crime comics, are a significant part of these children's lives. If anything, they read them earlier and in greater numbers than other children.
Twelve-year-old Kenneth was referred by his school. Reading tests showed him to be an almost total non-reader. He "reads" fourteen to twenty comic books a day. Questioned about this, he says proudly, "Oh, yes! I can read some words! I can read guns, police, Donald Duck and horse. That's all. when I'm on the subway I can read Times Square. But when I had to go to Floral Park once I couldn't read it so I missed the stop."
An interesting sidelight on such a sample group is the fact that these eleven children coming from families screened by social workers for attendance at a free clinic were an economic asset to the comic-book industry to the tune of almost twenty dollars a week.
Severe reading disorders and chronic addiction to comic books are very often associated. That alone indicates that comics do not work in the direction of literacy. Norman, aged twelve, had a severe reading disability owing to a visual disorder for which he had received treatment. His drawings gave evidence of some disorientation and distortion. Such a boy is in need of a great deal of careful remedial training. But instead of giving him early diagnosis and treatment, society made a comic-book addict out of him: "I read all different kinds of crime comics. I read many of them. I get the point of the story by just looking at the pictures."
Raymond, aged nine, was in the fourth grade. His mother said, "He does not learn well in school and cries at night." It was found that he needed remedial-reading training at the grade-1 level. Comic books absorbed most of his time and attention: "My favorites are all of them. I like the escape stuff. I looked at comic books that had all about escape, like Batman, a prisoner escaping from the prison. I used to wake up at night screaming. Since my mother left the light on in the living room, I haven't had that so much. In the dream, when I scream, I can't remember anything in the morning. I read about five comic books a day. I keep looking at them."
Reading difficulties are of course common in the school classes for children with retarded mental development. We have therefore in our investigation made special studies in these classes. They afford additional conclusive proof that severe reading difficulties and maximum comic-book reading go hand in hand, and that far from being a help to reading, comic books are a causal and reinforcing factor in children's reading disorders.
Here is an abstract of a survey of a whole ungraded class made by one of my assistants, who is a teacher and a psychologist. This class was composed entirely of boys. They were unselected cases of a series. The teacher had considerable difficulty in teaching them to read. She felt that even the language in the comic books interfered with learning to read. They could not read the original words, so it did not help their reading power when in comic books the word was abbreviated or in dialect. For example, in comics the children saw th' when they did not know how to read the word the, or they saw gal when they could not recognize the word girl. The teacher also found that comic books emphasized the poor features of the children's environment. The favorite scenes in comic books were precisely what children in slum areas, for instance, see too often in real life: assault and brutality, women who are hit or beaten, pocketbook snatching, etc. The teacher found that comic books were a definite hindrance not only to the reading progress, but also to the acquisition of social principles by these handicapped children. Every child in this class had been studied for two years by the same teacher. The children who were transferred to other classes or were late admissions were not included in this survey. Such a survey shows how children who are both socially and psychologically handicapped have to face the added complication of crime comics.
AGE/HIGHEST GRADE REACHED/I.Q./READING GRADE/COMMENTS
House where family lives is in a very deteriorated condition. Boy sleeps in same bed with brothers aged 6 and 12. He is considered "very wise in the ways of the street."
Comic hooks: "I like ghost stories and murder comics. They teach you not to curse nobody."
Took money from children in the lower grades. Family lives in basement apartment with large rat-holes, broken floor boards, flies and leaking over head pipes; furniture worn past recognition. Father unemployed; mother in poor health. Sleeps in one bed with two brothers aged 6 and 13.
Comic books: "In crime comics they murder people with guns and knife and strangle them. They stick up banks and stagecoach. My sister looks at murder comics and at night screams that she sees a man over there. Some men kill girls 'cause the ladies be rich. Men see lady walking down street and push them in front of train, sometimes tie them up. Some boys try to do like what's in the comic books. They take ladies' pocketbooks and beat them up and run off. Women kill the men, knife 'em, sometimes take men to dance and while dancing jook [sic] them in the back with a knife."
Good home conditions. Spends a lot of time with television.
Comic books: "I like Gangbusters, Crime Does Not Pay, Batman and Superman. They do murders, like shooting. The girls do things to the men. Catch bad men and take them to the law. Bullets bounce off girls in Super Girl. She can fly and swing on ropes.
Very tough little boy who will fight anyone of whatever size or age. Sleeps in one bed with three brothers aged 2, 5 and 11.
Comic books: "I don't remember the names of the comic books. They hold up coffee store and when girl reach for gun shoot them. Man make girls hold up stores. Other people learn about killing and taking ladies' pocketbooks. They learn about murders, but not me. I learn good stuff. Don't take nothing from no kid's house when you go up their house."
Lives with foster parents who do not speak English. Basement apartment consists of kitchen and bedroom.
Comic books: "I like Superman. I forget the bad things. I forget all that's in the crime books. I forget about how they robbed the bank. The men want to kill the girls. Maybe because they have jewels."
Sleeps with 13-year-old sister in one bedroom. Parents separated.
Comic books: "Captain Marvel was fighting ants and the ants grow big. Had a lady and was going to kill her and he escaped and fought ants and saved the lady. An ant helped him. In mysteries and crime comics they poison each other, dynamite caves and blow people up. Girls play men for fools and when men rob banks they give money to the women and they buy mink coats and when men don't like it they kill them. Superman ladies hardly do anything."
Father left family when boy was very young.
Comic books: "I like the way they fight and when they kill people. The books tells about murder, killing and shooting and some love."
Mother is dead.
Comic books: "In murder books men steal and throw the cop off the roof and kill about five men. Some make you scared at night. You dream about it and think somebody's coming to kill you. Some tells about stealing, killing people, some stick with knives, shoot with guns, beat them over their heads with sticks and stick them in the eyes, hit 'em over the head with a poker and string them up with ropes. I can read them now 'cause I know what's right and wrong. My aunt teaches me not to do bad things."
Very neglected child. Has to get up early in the morning and prepare his own meals. Grandmother, this boy, his brother, aged 4, and sister, aged 3, sleep in the same room.
Comic books: Knows many comic books. "Cowboys are bad. They steal money out of the express office. The boys beat the girls up and Superman comes to help the girls. The boys are bad because they do things they shouldn't. They set houses on fire. The comics teach boys how to rob and join up in gangs.
Frequent family assistance from Department of Welfare.
Comic hooks: "I read all kinds of comics except love. I don't like them. The only time I read them is when I've seen all the rest of the comics."
Mother deserted family; father works nights.
Comic books: Knows the names of many comics and says they are all his favorites. "The Indians shot a man in the eye with an arrow. The soldier took his sword and stuck it in him. The Indian took the soldier's rifie, killed everyone in the fort and the boy was shot right in the back and a baby was shot with a bullet and then the troopers came and they warred. I don't like mystery comics any more 'cause I dream about them and I can't sleep."
Brother also in ungraded class.
Comic books: "Cops and robbers fight. Robbers don't have money. They buy a cheap gun or little guns and go rob a bank."
Father in tuberculosis sanitarium. Children neglected. Truant.
Comic books: "I have no comics. I read my sister's. I like cowboy stories. They kill too much in the mystery comics. I don't like it because I dream about it. I dream ghost stories."
One of 11 siblings. The boys sleep in one room in bunk beds, 4 brothers in the upper bed, 4 in the lower bed. The sisters have a bunk bed in another room.
Comic books: "I like Superman. A man be laying down in bed and the door be locked and the lady run outside for help and hollers. The man comes through the window. Girls are always getting hurt in comic books. Every time the girl goes with a man there is murder and the girl screams."
Reading disorders, whatever their cause, are profoundly disturbing in a child's life. These children have to perform on a level far above their functioning capacity in an atmosphere of competition, and under the critique of teachers and parents they are exposed to an ever-present threat. They have to cope with something they do not understand. Almost with the precision of an experiment they are placed in a situation of ever-increasing frustration and disorientation. Going over the records of such children, I find noted over and over again: lack of self esteem; no self-confidence in school; "seems to lack interest in subjects he used to like"; estrangement from parents; shame; suspicion; hostility; feelings of inferiority; fear; truancy; running away from home; such characteristics as disruptive, unmanageable, rebellious, over-aggressive, destructive, discouraged; attitude of defeat; "doubts his learning ability in any field."
Over the years I have found a relatively high correlation between delinquency and reading disorders; that is to say, a disproportionate number of poor or non-readers become delinquent, and a disproportionate number of delinquents have pronounced reading disorders. Often such children are harmed by comic books in two ways. Comics reading reinforces the reading disorder, if it has not helped to cause it in the first place, and the child, frustrated by failure, is made more liable to commit a defiant act. At the same time comic books suggest all kinds of specific defiant acts to commit.
Judge Jacob Panken, a New York City Children's Court judge who has paid particular attention to reading, described the situation he found among delinquents in his court. "I have boys and girls - fifteen, sixteen years of age - who attend the high schools of our city, and some of these children cannot read one-syllable words! Yet they are in high school - second term, third term . . . Now I asked these children, 'What do you read?' and the answer is 'Comic books.'"
In cases of serious delinquency or crime the problem of severe reading disability sometimes comes up and usually receives little attention. It would be wrong to think that in such cases inability to read has driven an individual directly to the antisocial act. But it is equally wrong to disregard entirely such a severe handicap, which often in devious ways drives a young person to all kinds of emotional short circuits. In England recently a boy of sixteen shot one policeman between the eyes and wounded another. The case created a brief sensation. As a witness on the stand, the boy's father described his son as "a gentle boy." He was the youngest in a family of eight and attended school until he was fifteen.
Q.: In spite of that he never managed to read?
"Word blindness" constitutes a severe reading disability. According to my experience it can be greatly improved, and even cured, by competent therapy. Here then is a boy who has to struggle against a serious handicap. This creates a gap in his life which is filled for him by adult society with crime comic books. What he learned from them was apparent enough at the trial. It was testified that he had shouted at the policeman: "Come on, you brave coppers! Let us have it out!"
I can match this almost verbally: "Let's see you try to take me, you big brave coppers!" says a comic book on my desk.
This sixteen-year-old boy was sentenced to jail for life, his nineteen-year-old co-defendant, who was also illiterate and could not read anything except comic books, was hanged. It is, of course, easier to hang a boy than to give him remedial-reading instruction, and still easier to say he would have committed the crime anyhow. "Let us put out of our minds in this case any question of comics," said the judge. But who can say that the crime would have occurred if this boy's reading disability had been cured early and he had been given decent literature to read instead of comic books?
It is safe to say that it is almost impossible to exaggerate the havoc reading disabilities cause in a child's life. There is one redeeming feature. Reading disorders, of whatever cause, may be long-drawn-out affairs, but they need not be permanent. They are amenable to competent treatment. This must consist first of all in remedial-reading instruction, which preferably should be given three times a week, by trained instructors. It is not good enough if the newspapers carry an official announcement of a remedial-reading program giving teachers what is euphemistically called "intensive training" that lasts "one week"!
Competent remedial-reading teaching may show good results in a pupil even in four to six months. Not only does the reading itself improve, but often beneficial effects like the appearance of positive emotional attitudes may be observed. Sometimes the progress is stormy, with periods of increased aggressiveness and marked resistance. The children give up unfavorable attitudes eventually, though, and become aware of their ability to learn. Sometimes it is just as difficult to determine what makes these children well as to decide what caused the trouble in the first place. The relationship to the teacher and to the other children in remedial-reading teaching plays a big role. But the most important thing is the patient, competent actual remedial-reading training itself.
Only a very small percentage of the children who need it receive treatment. The United Parents Associations have estimated that there are 104,000 children in New York City schools who are poor readers and that of all these "only 2,500 are actually getting adequate remedial instruction." Even this is an optimistic statement. In 1943, before the establishinent of the Queens General Hospital Reading Clinic I had a study made by psychiatric social service workers of the facilities available in Queens County for the many children there with reading disorders who could not afford private fees. The answers from the various authorities and public and private agencies were revealing in their vagueness. The result of this inquiry was the discovery that "there are practically no facilities"! This was true of a big, growing county in the richest city in the world.
The Queens General Hospital Reading Clinic, which employs one remedial-reading teacher, could of course take only a small number of children and quickly developed a long waiting list. It was the only reading clinic that was entirely free in the whole of New York City in the summer months.
Comic books harm the development of the reading process from the lowest level of the most elementary hygiene of vision to the highest level of learning to appreciate how to read a good literary book. Print is easy to read when the paper background is light and the printing a good contrasting black. Yet most comics are smudgily printed on pulp paper. The printing is crowded in balloons with irregular lines. Any adult can check on the eyestrain involved by reading a few comic books himself. We can produce the most beautifully printed books and pamphlets; every morning my mail has advertising matter expertly designed and handsomely printed on expensive paper. Yet to our children we give the crudest and most ill-designed products.
Reading the comic-book text is often difficult. For example, the reading material in the huge present crop of horror comics is hard to make out even for the average adult reader. But all the emotional emphasis of comics is on the pictures, and that is where they do the most harm to reading. The discrepancy between the easy appeal of the pictures and the difficulty of reading the text is too great to encourage anyone to try to follow what the characters are supposed to be saying.
Even the simplest comic book requires at least a third-grade reading ability. In the course of studying children with reading disorders who are at the same time great comic-book readers, I have found many who have developed a special kind of 'reading." They have become what I call "picture readers." Later I learned that not only children with reading difficulties, but also those with good reading ability, are seduced by comic books into "picture reading." This is of course another point where comic books exert a pernicious influence on the general child population.
Picture reading consists in gazing at the successive pictures of the comic book with a minimal reading of printed letters. Children may read the title, or occasionally an exclamation when the picture is particularly violent or sexually intriguing. This kind of picture reading is not actually a form of reading, nor is it a pre-stage of real reading. It is an evasion of reading and almost its opposite. Habitual picture readers are severely handicapped in the task of becoming readers of books later, for the habit of picture reading interferes with the acquisition of well-developed reading habits.
The percentage of picture readers among children who read many comic books is large. Here is a typical example. Jimmy, a boy of fifteen, was referred to me on account of trouble in school. He was in the third term of high school. His reading grade level was 2.4. During one of the Hookey Club sessions, when the question of which children should be given working papers was being debated, he presented his own case: "I want to leave school. I'll be sixteen in January. I can't leave school until I have a job. I don't pay attention in school. I think it is boring. I was left back three times and put ahead twice. I would like anything but school."
Another Hookey Club member: "What was your last trouble in school?"
Jimmy: "I know I can't read. That's why I don't like school." A third Hookey Club member gave him a schoolbook and asked him to read a few sentences. Jimmy, reading aloud, "..." He could not read a single simple sentence without making a mistake.
A girl in the group asked him, "Do you read comic books?"
Jimmy: "I don't read comics. I just look at the pictures - Crime Does Not Pay, True Detective, Superman. I get the story by just looking at the pictures. Once in a while, when a good part comes, I read what I can, but the words I don't know I just pass over. When it is a short story and it looks interesting - when it is bad and they shoot each other - and when they get the woman - then I try to read it."
Another eleven-year-old picture-reader has this to say: "I don't try to read them except once in a while if I know a word."
Schoolteachers and college authorities are becoming aware of increasing reading difficulties. Colleges have been forced to make reading classes available to their freshmen. Universities have instituted special courses which are actually nothing but remedial-reading courses, despite their high-sounding titles: "Communications," etc.
This low-grade literacy shows also in the fact that many people say they have no time to read a book, instead of giving the real reason: that they cannot read one. According to the Authors' League Bulletin, one-third of the people who leave school before high school never open a book for the rest of their lives.
The responsibility of comic books for reading disorders is manifold. They have prevented and are preventing early detection of reading difficulties, by masking the disorder and giving parents the impression that the child can read; they aggravate reading difficulties that already exist; they cause reading disorders by luring children with the primary appeal of pictures as against early training to real reading; they attack the child just at the age of six or seven when basic reading skills ought to be developed, and again at pre-adolescence when on a higher level good reading habits should be fostered. Discerning teachers are well aware of this.
There is not a single good psychological study based on scientific data that would show that comic books may help children to read. An article published by a member of the Board of Experts of the Superman publisher is based on elaborate word-counts and statistics. It comes to the conclusion that comic books "provide a substantial amount of reading experience" and "may have real value for the educator." What he describes as a "reading experience" is in fact mostly a non-reading experience. It evidently has not occurred to this Superman expert that most children do not read the many words which he has counted.
The general statement has been made that comic books might be helpful for children "who will not read anything else." That is certainly pedagogically unsound. Of course there are children who have been corrupted by comic books so that they do not want to read anything else, to the detriment of their ability to acquire proper reading habits. But is it sound to advise that addiction to comic-book reading be cured by addiction to comic-book reading?
While comic books harm children in acquiring the basic skills of reading, they harm them even more on the higher level of learning to appreciate and like the content of good reading matter. This has been recognized by literary critics and by librarians. Julia Todd Hallen, writing in the Tacoma Times says, "Too many fail to realize that with a child's first books his appreciation of good books is begun."
In questioning hundreds of children I have found that comic-book reading and reading good books for pleasure are for all purposes opposites. Actually many children nowadays do not know what the word classic means; they think it means a "classics" comic book. For many children, the entire concept of book is concerned with comic books. I have yet to see a child who was influenced to read "classics" or "famous authors" in the original by reading them in comic-book versions. What happens instead is that the comic-book version cuts the children off from this source of pleasure, entertainment and education. Typical is the case of the eleven-year-old boy of superior intelligence, from a good social and economic background, who exhibited the "classics" comic-book version of Robinson Crusoe with these words: "Why should I read the real book if I have this? If I had to make a report I could use this. It would leave out all the boring details that would be in a book."
What is the experience of librarians? Ida M. Anderson, of the Providence Public Library, has written: "Many parents and educators have expressed to me their agreement with us on the stand that such reading of comic books has a pernicious effect on the reading habits of children. . . . That comic books encourage the reading of books is contrary to the experience of librarians. Circulation of juvenile books in libraries all over the country has decreased greatly since the reading of comic books has become so popular. . . . The representative of a comic-book publisher suggested that libraries have stimulated the circulation of children's books by posting a sign: 'Superman Recommends These.' The Providence Public Library tried this, but the chief result was a request for Superman rather than for the books listed."
What the comic books of "classics" and "famous authors" do shows our disregard for literature or for children or for both. In the comic books which go to millions of children, these mutilations are advertised with such phrases as "Told in the Modern Manner," "No longer is it necessary to wade through hundreds of pages of text . . . preserve all the excitement and interest . . . if it's thrills you want, then you'll find them a-plenty . . . Ask your parents if they think you should read Shakespeare . . ." Macbeth is offered to your child "Stream lined for Action," "... a dark tragedy of jealousy, intrigue and violence adapted for easy and enjoyable reading. Packed with action from start to finish . . ." Shakespeare and the child are corrupted at the same time.
By looking at the pictures and reading sporadically a title or an exclamation, a child can follow to some extent the plot of one of these versions of "great stories," or at least what the editor and the child think the plot is. A fourteen-year-old boy in the eighth year at school, with a second-grade reading level, says that he has read the "classics" version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "It is called The Mad Doctor. He makes medicine. He drinks it and turns into a beast. He kills a little girl. The cops chase him. Then he changes into a man. He comes to a famous home and falls in love with a girl. He keeps changing. Finally he gets shot. While dying he changes back to a human being. I like when he comes to the little girl and hits her with a cane.
On the highest level of reading, comic books influence the creative abilities of children. One can see that from the stories that gifted children write. Where good reading stimulates them to imaginative writing, under the comic-book influence their natural gifts are directed to a cheap killing-the-girl, electric-chair romanticism.
In a recent school magazine edited and got out by the pupils themselves there is a typical story, showing comic-book influence. It tells graphically of a young man who rides in a car with his girl. Another car draws up alongside them and a man with a silencer on his gun shoots and kills the girl. The cab-driver thinks the young man did it, "the dirty rat," and calls the police. The young man escapes to Mexico. But he is arrested and charged with the murder. We leave him in jail waiting for the electric chair, although he is innocent. The story closes with this fittingly crude verse:
A flash of light,
Spelling in comic books is often faulty. "The Case of the Psycopathic [sic] Lady" is not good for children in either content or spelling. Comic-book writing is also extremely poor in style and language. It is no help to the child to learn such barbaric neologisms as 'suspenstories' (the name of an "authorized" comic book). And the editorial comments are no better than the story text; e.g., this "cosmic correspondence":
"Greetings, humanoids! Drag over a cyclotron and crawl in! (If we'da known you were coming, we'da baked an isotope!)',
Comic books also have many words that are not words at all. For example, there may be a series of six pictures with violent scenes with no language, just sounds which have no real spelling. From one typical comic book alone, a Western endorsed by a psychiatrist on the first page, I have made this partial list:
One Hookey Club boy called it "basic American."
Language reflects attitudes. In crime comics the language of criminals and their women companions is glorified. I have had referred to me quite a number of unruly children who expressed at home or in school a typical disobedient, arrogant, impudent, smart-alecky attitude. I found that one can help these children, and that many of their expressions were merely a superficial copying of the corresponding typical attitude repeated over and over again in comic books.
In one comic book is a sexy picture of a blonde female dressed in a string of beads and a scrap of material. She says:
"A gentleman, he never black-jacked a woman. He hit them with his fists." Millions of children have been taught that this kind of thing is the smart thing to say.
All clean fun, say the spokesmen for the industry. But what children have told me does not bear this out. There are always some who absorb these attitudes. How insensitive must adults be -- not to realize that this language itself expresses an unfortunate attitude - the attitude of the crime comic book.
Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham (Rinehart & Company, Inc. New York, Toronto 1953, 1954)