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Sequential Art and Education: Using Comic Books to Educate and Entertain

Occasionally I hear phrases such as “comic books are a waste of time”, “children should be reading real books and not just looking at pretty pictures”. Such statements, even when well intentioned, are always made with the idea that comic books are “bad for the education of children”. I disagree. Like I said before people are “story telling animals”, comic books as an example of Sequential Art, can be used to both tell stories or to convey information. In my opinion the best Comic Books will attempt to do both. If a picture is worth 1000 words, how about a series of pictures, coupled with just the right words? The correct combination of pictures and words can allow children to be introduced to ideas from science, history and even contemporary issues, in a manner which is easy to relate to.

Consider the following: in 1964 the Danish scientist, Karl Kroeyer, raised a sunken freighter near the Kuwait harbor in the Persian Gulf, by pumping it full of expandable polystyrene foam bubbles. Where did he get his idea? From reading something similar in a comic book story as a young man! In Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #104, (May 1949), Donald Duck and his nephews raised a sunken ship from the bottom of the sea by filling the inside of the boat with Ping-Pong balls. The Ping- Pong balls fill the hold, displacing the water in the ship and giving it enough buoyancy to float to the surface.

Kroeyer´s solution worked in essentially the same way as the Ping-Pong balls, with both methods relying on buoyancy as the key mechanism. Later, when Kroeyer tried to patent his process, his request was denied because the method had been published in the comic book fifteen years earlier!

The Ping – Pong ball story is not the only example of Donald Duck using science to solve a problem. Fighting forest fires, explaining ghostly ships and, exploring underwater are all given the same treatment.

Another example of Sequential Art that manages to strike the right balance between Story and Science, and which both educates and entertains, is the French educational animation franchise “Il Était Une Fois…”, “Once Upon a Time…”. This franchise, by Procidis, discusses various topics such as the overall history of mankind; the workings of the human body; the history of the American continent; the various thinkers and inventors throughout history; the various explorers and; the preservation of the natural environment.

As a specific example, we can mention “Once Upon a Time… Life”. This series depicted the workings of the human body through metaphor. Throughout the 26 episode series, the Human Body is portrayed as a complex society. In each episode of the series a different organ or system within the human body (like the brain, the heart, the circulatory system, etc.), is featured. Good characters represented the cells that make up the body’s systems and defense mechanisms, such as red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, while bad characters represented the viruses and bacteria that threaten to attack the human body.

Children from countries as diverse as Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Croatia, got a look at the inner workings of the body in a way that was factual, fun and understandable. Many children, me included liked, and looked forward to watching the next episode.

Comic books and science can indeed mesh, but they do not always mesh well. Many Comic Books do not get the necessary balance between Fun and Fact “quite right”. When this happens the science is often sacrificed to the story and becomes gimmicky or implausible.

Carl BarksContrast this approach to that taken by Carl Barks, who wrote and drew nearly all of the Donald Duck comic book adventures published in Disney comics from 1942 to 1966. Barks valued the intelligence of his audience. In an interview published in 1985, Barks stated, “I didn’t go along with the editors’ idea that children who bought . . . comics were ignorant, blubbering infants. I assumed that my average reader was around twelve years old, semi-worldly, and already quite knowledgeable about mechanics, history, science, nature, travel, and so on.” Barks also believed that, “readers of any age would be more pleasantly entertained by stories that were plausibly written and believably drawn.”

Rather than discarding those comic books that misrepresent science altogether, a more useful approach is to use them as examples. Consider the following comic book Super-heroes: Superman, Hulk, Spiderman, and the Batman. Each of these can be used to discuss how the story “gets the science right or wrong“.

Can a being like Superman, who gets a plethora of “superpowers” from being exposed to “sunlight of a different colour”, exist? Could Bruce Banner survive a Gamma Ray explosion? Would this explosion give him the ability to increase his physical size and strength as a result of anger? How about the Batman, a Superhero with no Superpowers? Do the crime fighting items he carries around in the Batbelt exist? Do the powers which Peter Parker develops have any resemblance to those of a real spider? Interested in exploring these questions further? Get yourself a copy of “The Science of Super-Heroes”, by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg.

Join me in the “next installment” for a brief discussion of Will Eisner widely considered to be the father of the graphic novel, as well as the relationship of Sequential Art to Journalism, History and, Contemporary Issues.

In the mean time, grab a Comic and just have fun reading! See you soon! In the mean time take a look at the following online comic books, which attempt to educate and entertain:

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