Regularly in my work in both primary school and secondary schools, as far afield as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, all points in England, and even Abu Dhabi, I am told by teachers that I have got a pupil to write stories who doesn't usually write, and to read who doesn't usually read. How?
Well part of my impact is of course my novelty. A visiting artist is always going to be a break from the norm and combining, as I do, my expertise as a stand up comedian with my love and knowledge of comics inevitably makes a pleasant diversion from their usual teachers (who are all brilliant, need I mention?). And working, as we do, at a whirlwind speed, producing a comic book with the entire class in a morning or afternoon, they hardly have time to realise what's hit them before the fun's over. But entertainment is all well and good, so how does this manage to help them with literacy?
The answer lies on the comic strip page. And in particular with the voice or speech bubble. Comic books and comic strips, you see, are a very unfamiliar sight to most children in British schools today. They are familiar with many of the characters, from having seen them on TV and in films and games, but few are regular readers of comics, and those that are are limited to the juvenile reading experience of The Beano.
But when I scatter comics on their tables, as I do as part of the class (encouraging them to copy and to learn from the drawings they see), the excitement is palpable. The cries of "look at this" and "have you seen this?" are as delightful as they are inevitable as most of them are seeing the interiors of, for example, Marvel & DC superhero comics, for the first time. And with most comics giving you little change from three quid these days, this is little surprise.
And on all of those comic strip pages we see the single tool of the comic strip trade that was the reason I had the best reading age in my own primary school year, the voice bubble. I, like many young readers (particularly, though not exclusively, boys) learned to read visually. Children draw before they can write, and they learn to interpret visual images and work out what is happening in front of them visually, before they can read words or even understand spoken language. So what better way for them to learn to read than to read one picture following another on a printed page?
Then, once they've begun to read the story laid out in panels before them, what could be simpler than having a character's spoken words appear in a balloon, emerging from (or more accurately with a stem pointing towards) their open mouth? It was as a result of this simple device that, by the age of five, I was reading, and spelling correctly, words like Thermonuclear Device and Excelsior. Because I was reading The Hulk and The Fantastic Four. I could work out what was happening in the story, helped all the more by the fact that the stories contained unlimited violence, punching, explosions and big shiny spaceships and gruesome monsters - which are, for the record, a million times more interesting to any five year old boy than Janet, John and/or Spot The Dog - and then I could read the words, making sense of them by a simple joining of the mental dots.
Quite how anyone who had to learn by deciphering a wall of words alone managed I cannot quite comprehend. Sure there were picture books. But a) they were for kids (see Janet, John, Spot and for my money Gruffaloes and Hungry Caterpillars, which are fine for parents to read to kids but a yawn for kids to read themselves) and b) had pictures on one page and words on the other with no obvious link between the two. Inverted commas v the voice bubble is a battle the inverted commas are going to lose every time, surely.
So, I teach comics, and they help struggling readers with literacy. QED. If you want me, you know where to find me. My next aim is to begin producing the sort of comic books that I believe young readers want to read and that will be affordable to them. Stay tuned, we'll see how I progress.
In the meantime, there's a whole archive of Comic Art Masterclass comics as produced by the kids in my classes on my website, including these choice examples and many more...
71 New Comics by Schoolkids - from spring 2014
If anyone wants me to come and show their kids how to do what I've been doing for a living for the last two decades in my patent Comic Art Masterclasses, drop me a line, a comment, a Twitter, smoke signals, the usual methods. Click below to see more, including video and contact details.
Curse Of The Singing Go Compare Man & other comics, by kids in Kent and Henley