When Words Collide

Mon, November 9th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: November 11th, 2009 at 4:48am

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

DECOMPRESS THIS, TEACH!

Still Good

I have comics in the classroom on my mind this week, mostly due to a strange conflagration of forces that have nothing to do with what I was actually planning on talking about. I spent the past few days digging into some of my hardcover collections - I just moved into a new house, and as I was sorting and putting away, I couldn't help but set a couple of things aside in the "yeah, I need to reread this now" pile. So I reread "Final Crisis," "Dark Knight Strikes Again," and half of Morrison's "New X-Men" Omnibus," all of which deserve some time on the ol' "When Words Collide" stage.

But I need to let them settle in my brain a bit. I'm sure I have something to say about the modes of apocalypse in "Final Crisis" vs. "DKSA." Or maybe something about the frantic, fractured design of each. And, by the way, both of those books were even better when read out of the context in which they were released. And you guys know how much I looooved "Final Crisis," so for me to say that it reads even better almost a year later is an extraordinary compliment.

Then again, it is a Morrison book, so you're probably unshocked by my praise.

Still, it makes pretty much everything on the stands this fall seem so damn tepid, and so does "Dark Knight Strikes Again." Those were some crazy, full-on COMICS. Do we have much from Marvel or DC this season that's even close? Not so much.

And rereading "New X-Men" for the first time since its initial release, I was still baffled by the Igor Kordey hate. His stuff, as rough as it is, is still better than the Keron Grant pages. Better than plenty of the Van Sciver pages too. His expressive brush-strokes and bold anatomical choices make him the Gene Colan of the 21st century. At least when he's rushed.

But as I said, I'll delve deeper into all of those things later. Maybe next week, if the outcry is loud enough. Cry out, readers!

So, comics in the classroom? What's that about? And why talk about that when there are so many Grant Morrison and/or Frank Miller comics I could be discussing?

The Illustrated Format

Here's what happened: (a) I taught a comics workshop a couple of weeks ago that I still haven't written about here, so that's been percolating, (b) in the move to the new house, I unearthed one of my wife's old books from 1980, an ancient tome about using comics in the classroom - 29 years ago, can you believe it? And (c) last week, I was handed an official "Certificate of Appreciation" from our mayor for my work in promoting comics and the arts this summer, a certificate with an official town seal and everything!

Yeah, hang out with a bunch of kids in the summer and teach them how to make their own superheroes and you, too, can win your own mayorally-sealed fancy certificate. Maybe.

I'm kind of mocking the Certificate of Appreciation, but I'm doing so lovingly. It is a great gesture that the mayor's office took the time to put such a document together and to recognize the contribution of anything in the comic book industry. Just that fact that my work in teaching some comic book concepts to the city's youth is worthy of official recognition - well, that's pretty cool, right? We tend to say this a lot in recent years, but comics have come a long way, and the attitude toward comics has changed drastically.

Just last month, my school put on a series of writing workshops. It was an exciting experience, with every single student and every faculty member taking a break from the normal routine to run or participate in a two-hour writing workshop that my English department helped pull together. We had poetry slam workshops, fitness plan workshops, young adult fiction workshops, preparing for the zombie apocalypse workshops, and my comic book writing workshop. One of the local papers covered the event, and the two classes they highlighted were the zombie and comic book ones. It was certainly a hugely positive article, and though the reporter questioned the validity of some of our approaches, it was done as more of a "can you patiently explain how this relates to standardized test scores?" kind of inquiry than a "what do you mean you're wasting school time with this nonsense?"

It wasn't always that way. I'm certainly old enough to remember a time when a copy of "Uncanny X-Men" would be taken away by the teacher if you were caught reading it during a study hall. It wasn't that long ago, honestly.

But now? Mayors and zombies and comics and classrooms. One big happy family.

Yet, if this book from my wife's collection is any indication, this "comics in the classroom" thing has been going on for a long time. Except, back in 1980, they had some strange opinions about what "comics in the classroom" meant.

Cyclops Is Sad Because I Got Detention

This book's called "The Illustrated Format: an effective teaching tool," and I'd never even heard of it before I found this copy amidst my wife's collection of childhood "Mad Libs" and "Little House" novels. Amazon lists some used copies for sale, but Google Images doesn't come back with any cover pics. No one cares about this forgotten little book. Except me, and my wife, who doesn't even care about it at all, really. It must have been given to her by a teacher when she was in elementary school - she doesn't remember - or one of those books that a kid takes from a pile of books the teacher no longer wants.

It sports a $3.95 price tag, but its basically nothing more than an ad for something called the "Now Age Illustrated Series," a book-length justification for, yes, comics can be used to help students learn, just so they can sell you some of their comics. Except, as they explain in the book - which is a collection of "essays" (or sales pitches) - comics need some work before they're ready for classroom use. Comics kind of suck, the book would have you believe, and only the "Now Age Illustrated" folks know how to make them good enough to stand next to your copies of "I Am the Cheese" and "The Berenstain Bears House Party."

One of the things the "Now Age" folks did is invent decompressed comics about 20 years before the Jemas Marvel era popularized them. Vincent Fago, "producer" of the line, and self-proclaimed former Marvel employee who says he "left the business because of the pulps, the accent on violence, and the generally low standards," describes how "Every attempt is made not to rush, not to squeeze, not to compromise." Fago was actually the editor-in-chief of Timely Comics during WWII, and later went on to create Atomic Mouse for Charlton (though credited as "Al Fago" at the time). It's unclear whether his "generally low standards" comment refers to comics during the Golden Age (when he was actually working at what would later be called Marvel) or his early Silver Age Charlton work, or the comics of the late-1970s. One supposes that he's talking about his experiences from decades earlier, but, then again, it's not like the mainstream comics of the late 1970s were less pulpy or less violent.

So the "Now Age Illustrated" comics - basically "Classics Illustrated" with less panels per page - decompressed the stories, replaced hand-lettering with typeset font, and focused on detailed panel drawings. Nestor Redondo worked on a bunch of them, apparently, though you wouldn't be able to gather that information from "The Illustrated Format" book, which doesn't list any artist credits even as it includes dozens of sample pages and spot illustrations.

That a book called "The Illustrated Format" would completely ignore the identity of the artists supplying the illustrations for said format - well, that's the most ridiculous thing about the book. (And, overall, it is a pretty ridiculous book, with its constant attempts to sell its product disguised as a collection of educational essays about the importance of reading.)

No Artist Listed Here Either

Another silly assertion from the book, from another one of Fago's chapters? "Another means of capturing the child's reading interest is through the use of scrolls containing informational captions. The presentation of text within the scroll gives the child the kind of pleasure or interest he or she might get from deciphering an old treasure map."

No wonder we all liked "Watchmen" so much! Those "Black Freighter" sections were full of informational "scrolls"!

Seriously, is the technique of changing the caption box into a slightly raggedy "scroll" really going to make a kid want to read the comic that much more? Fago says yes, and then goes on to explain, for the more dense teachers in the reading audience apparently, that "the child has the pleasure of actually seeing, for example, Long John Silver addressing Jim Hawkins as well as reading the dialogue Long John is speaking."

Words and pictures? Astonishing!

The fact that this kind of overexplaining had to be used to show why comics were valuable tell a lot about the prejudice against comics back then. Fago and company had a lot of biases to break through. (The explanations are pretty silly, though.)

To get back to the decompression a bit. Fago actually outlines what makes the "Illustrated Format" better than plain old comics, and in his list of improvements he says that the comic book uses "eight to ten pictures" per page, while the "Illustrated Format" uses "three, four, or five panels so that a satisfactory balance is maintained among script, pictures, and space." He was on to something there, as every comic book from the last ten years will demonstrate.

Also: "Sexist illustration is avoided." Ah, well. That one didn't really catch on, did it?

Then, to prove his point, Fago, or whoever designed this book, puts a "Comic Book Page" side-by-side with an "Illustrated Format Page" to show how much better this new version is. Except the "Comic Book Page" is completely made up just to show how crappy comic books are. It's not taken from a real issue of any comic. It's just a poorly-drawn, overly-cramped, badly-lettered fake comic book page designed to prove that, yes, the "Illustrated Format" is better. Kind of a set-up there.

Fake Comics ARE Bad

The example of the "Illustrated Format" does look a heck of a lot better on first glance. Nestor Redondo, I'm guessing. But the storytelling is pretty terrible. The decompression doesn't allow for logical development between panels, and it barely makes any sense at all. It's like watching a movie on skip mode.

Still, it's better than the completely bogus terrible comic book page they made up just to show that it's better than a completely bogus terrible comic book page.

I've never actually seen a "Now Age Illustrated Format" book, other than the excerpts provided in this sales-brochure-disguised-as-an-instructional-guide. I wonder if any of you were exposed to their glory in your wayward youths? Did they help you appreciate the classic literature of bygone eras? Did you understand that the words and the pictures combine to tell a story? Did you get comics in your classroom, well before it was fashionable?

Because I didn't. All I got was an indoor recess because I was reading Chris Claremont instead of doing my math exercises. My teachers weren't hip to the Fago.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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