Are comics the junk food on children’s reading menu? Think again!

Remember Chacha Chaudhury, the one ‘whose brain works faster than a computer’? Sabu, the big, strong man from Jupiter? Brings back a flood of memories, doesn’t it? When Pran Sharma, the creator of Chacha Chaudhury, one of India’s best known comic book characters, passed away recently, I found myself revisiting some of those memories.

Memories of childhood, and long hours spent reading. A time when books and comics were our main entertainment and our constant companions – at home, in homes we went visiting with our parents, on holidays, and during long train journeys. (Some long distance trains even had libraries those days!)

Back then, a comic book was always looked down upon as perhaps a less intellectual form of story telling, relying on the use of visuals to keep the reader interested. Or at least that’s the sense we got from our elders, who were always happier to see us with a ‘proper’ book than a lightweight comic.

A bit of Googling tells me that perhaps that assumption might have been misplaced. New studies are showing that comics being fun to read is precisely the reason they’re a good thing – they encourage today’s kids to read. They contain elements common to all narrative stories, like characters, conflict, resolution etc, and they are easier to comprehend thanks to their visual context-clues and sequencing. Apparently, reading a comic actually helps kids develop a complex reading skill – which uses a lot of inference, thanks to the need to put together the visuals and the dialogues and fill in the unwritten parts in the mind.

Also, it may also work better for kids who prefer drawing to writing. Such kids may like comics for the art and illustrations and then get enticed to read the dialogues. In others, reading comics can lead to increased appreciation and interest in drawing and art. Which leads to creativity. Which in today’s world is a vital skill, no?

You might say that in today’s world, children are getting their comics equivalent from cartoons on tv. But what I’m seeing is a lot of violence and bad behavior in popular cartoons – in Power Rangers, Ben 10, Looney Tunes, Shin Chan, Pokemon, even Scooby Doo and the likes. As adults we might think that cartoon violence is harmless fun, but research is showing otherwise.

A report published in the respected Pediatrics journal is an eye opener. Done by doctors from the Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute, it discovered from a study (of 8000 families done over 40 years) that every hour of children watching violent programming in their preschool years, led to a threefold increase in their aggression levels between ages 7-10! Read that again.

So why won’t comics do that?

My humble opinion, with no study to back it – violence in comics is implied, not depicted. You just do a panel with a big blast and then follow it up with stars circling the character’s head. That’s it, that part of the story’s told! No need to show exactly who hit where and how and how hard with sound effects to further bring it alive, like animation or the moving medium requires.

Comics are less ‘graphic’ than tv, if I may put it that way.

So what can we do, as adults? I think the solution is simple, and fun. We should start reading comics once again. And be seen by children reading comics. Dispel the myth that comics are only for kids. Make them cool and aspirational.

The good news is some of this is beginning to happen. Events like the annual Comic Con India are igniting interest in cartoon characters among kids and adults alike. Anime and Manga have created a space for comics targeted at young adults. And publishers are coming out with new Indian-themed comics too. In our childhood, we’d proudly flaunt our collections of Amar Chitra Katha, Chacha Chaudhury, Archie, Tintin and Asterix comics and our intimate knowledge of the stories and characters. Maybe it’s time to refresh that and start discovering new ones too!

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