Comics in the Classroom Part 1: Comics Inside the Brain

I've been writing and drawing for The Phoenix weekly story comic since it started, nearly 5 years ago. In that time I've heard countless stories about kids who hated reading, got hooked on reading The Phoenix, and then went on to get hooked on reading more generally. My wife Lisa worked for many years as an English and Special Needs teacher, and I saw similarly impressive results from her use of comics in the classroom - from encouraging struggling readers to translating whole lessons into a comprehensible format for autistic-spectrum kids. But it wasn't until I read The Cute Manifesto by James Kochalka that I started to think about why that might be:

Images from The Cute Manifesto by James Kochalka.

Since reading that deceptively simple little snippet, I have often thought about my own mental processes through that lens. When we think about how we see and process the world, we often think in terms of a movie playing in our heads. But while it is possible to see the world in this way, it is not actually our normal mode of perceiving. I will occasionally try to enter this mode intentionally, watching trees or walls glide past as I walk as if my eyes were the film camera. But merely trying this exercise is sufficient to see that this is an artificial mode of perceiving, that can only be sustained with effort.

The task of "reading" the sequence of images requires less mental processing than prose and so allows readers to more easily bypass the hurdles of learning the medium and get on with enjoying the story.

For some reason this mental exercise always makes me think of the hallucinatory final car ride sequence in Rififi.

It's much more natural to perceive moments. As I walk, I notice a tree, then a bird singing, then I say hello to someone, they give me a weird look because why am I saying hello - they don't know me - then I turn that over in my mind for a while, replaying the interaction more favourably, then I check the road for traffic and so on. Each of those moments, whether directly perceived, remembered or imagined, is experienced as a complete, self-contained image or a sequence of images, maybe with a few words or sounds. In other words, a comic. Kochalka's hypothesis is that comics are closer to the internal workings of the human mind than any other medium.

Page from The Cute Manifesto. The text reads: "Our memories fall into patterns of snippets of information...and so do comics! Series of little pictures and groups of words arranged in a rhythmic pattern to create and activate a world inside us."

Image from The Cute Manifesto by James Kochalka.

I suspect that, more than bright visuals or showy action, it is this similarity which makes comics so accessible to young readers. The task of "reading" the sequence of images requires less mental processing than prose and so allows readers to more easily bypass the hurdles of learning the medium and get on with enjoying the story.

This is part 1 of a series on the role of comics for literacy both inside and outside the classroom. Watch this space for part 2...

You can now read part 2 of this series, where Adam talks about how reading comics can develop a fully-fledged love of reading, or check out the whole series by clicking on the 'comics for literacy with Adam Murphy' blog tag.

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Adam Murphy

Adam Murphy's book Lost Tales
Adam Murphy is a Glasgow-based comics artist. A regular contributor to The Phoenix weekly comics magazine, he is the creator of Corpse Talk, the comic-book chat show in which he interviews the dead famous from history, and Lost Tales in which he re-discovers and re-interprets forgotten folktales from around the world. Corpse Talk Season 1 and Season 2, and Lost Tales (released August 4th 2016) are published by David Fickling Books.