Stand up for comics;Children's books

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Many would dismiss them as rubbish, but Elaine Williams meets one expert who believes comics can have great literary and educational value. And at least they get the boys reading...

If you see a group of boys hunched over a comic in class, you might well ask them to get on with some real reading. Mel Gibson knows better.

As she sidles up to one group during a school visit, a boy turns to her:

"This is great Miss, it's about this man and this bird - are there any more like this?" He is looking at The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge - the full text, but hilariously illustrated in comic form by Hunt Emerson (Knockabout Publications pound;8.99).

"It's brilliant, isn't it?," says Mel. "Lads into Victorian narrative poetry."

Mel is a crusader for the comic strip. She enthuses librarians and teachers on her evangelising tours and believes that comics and graphic novels represent a huge untapped resource for engaging reluctant readers, especially boys. In common with writers such as Philip Pullman, she thinks the graphic form can extend meaning far beyond a text.

Pullman saw the light while holding a workshop with 15-year-olds in a comprehensive school. He was having difficulties with the boys at the back, he went to sit with them and noticed one had a copy of Watchmen, a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons which he admires as a work of "sheer intelligence". Once the boys realised he knew the book as well as they did, and wasn't patronising them, "the discussion opened up in an extraordinary way. These boys who didn't like English and didn't read novels and hated poems were talking about Watchmen with a critical intelligence -and a sheer intellectual enthusiasm that was a joy to share."

Most towns have a comic shop. They tend to be full of males from 10 upwards, obsessively trawling through any stock that isn't in sealed plastic bags. They don't have sofas, they don't serve capuccino and they smell like locker rooms, but they pull in the crowds.

When Mel became librarian at Cowpen Library in Blyth, Northumberland, a deprived coastal town, she had to tackle the adolescent male library "abusers". Cowpen was the library for both Tynedale High School and the local community, and in the evenings it attracted boys who had nowhere else warm to hang out. Mel's solution was a comic and graphic novel collection. If comic shops turned spotty teenage boys into readers, she reasoned, libraries needed comics.

The new collection was thumbed until it fell apart. There were long waiting lists for Judge Dredd, and the boys started requesting books.

She has been a children's librarian for 15 years and is currently visiting lecturer in media, film and cultural studies at the University of Sunderland, where she has also started a PhD on girls' comics in Britain.

She was brought up on comics and keeps a vast collection at her home in South Shields. Her father was born on the Tyne Dock but was one of the first generation to break away - he went to the Slade School of Art in London and came back a painter. "When I was young, my dad was into Pop Art and the high artlow art crossover," says Mel. "He would talk me through the cover of a Flash comic as he would talk me through a painting."

She picks out titles which she ranks as works of literature. Books With Attitude, her guide to graphic novels "for seven to 17-year-olds" includes Raymond Briggs's The Man and When the Wind Blows; she also loves Ethel and Ernest, his latest. She points out the homage that illustrators such as Maurice Sendak and Shirley Hughes have paid to artist Winsor McCay and his turn-of-the-century New York Herald comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland", and she is passionate about the merits of Maus I and Maus II (Penguin pound;9.99 and pound;11) by Art Spiegel-man, graphic novels about how Spiegelman's father survived the concentration camps, which she recommends to boys who won't read Anne Frank.

It's only the British who tend to see comics as something for small children. In Europe, Japan and the United States the comic is considered a suitable medium for telling any story, and a third of all publications in Japan are in comic-strip form. British mainstream publishers are finally beginning to wake up to the potential, and many libraries now have a graphic novel section.

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