Comics and graphic novels have traditionally been praised as providing a stepping stone to mainstream literature. The recent publication of three Shakespeare plays in graphic form was welcomed by literacy experts, who said they would make the bard more accessible to teenagers.
But research in the latest issue of the Education and Health journal claims that comics are valid in their own right.
Paul Aleixo, of De Montfort University, and Claire Norris, a freelance academic, believe that comics are valuable purely because children choose to read them. Many are produced to tie-in with popular films and television series, tapping into children's pre-existing interests and enthusiasms.
They said: "There is little evidence of detrimental effects of reading comics. It seems apparent, therefore, that children should be encouraged to read comics."
Comics and graphic novels are often dismissed as cheap and poor quality, promoting violence for boys and domesticity for girls.
But the academics observed that, while there is still a need for comics that appeal specifically to girls, their subject matter is increasingly wide-ranging. And modern comics are often high-quality, both in terms of content and production.
"The bottom line is that the enjoyment of reading can be fostered by the use of comics, regardless of whether children graduate to text-only reading or not," they said. "They will be, after all, enjoying their reading experiences."
The researchers also believe that comics improve visual literacy, a valuable skill to have in our multimedia age.
"The idea that comics are more immature reading materials, simply because they employ images, shows a misunderstanding of the comic medium," they said.
Ian McNeilly, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, is a long-standing Beano and Dandy fan.
"Comics should not be seen as a poor relation, or a stepping stone to other, more worthy texts," he said. "But it's important to have a balanced literary diet. Comics might engage with the human condition, but they're unlikely to give you the depth of detail that a huge, well-written, weighty novel would."
For the full report, read "Comics, Reading and Primary-Aged Children", Education and Health, Vol 25, no 4.