I still remember the expression of my exasperated mother as I stood there, a petulant 10 year-old, pouting amongst the stock of the mom & pop bookstore. I was being a brat, trying to impart to my maternal unit that the nearly weekly outings to the local bookstore were not to be endured. However, she had pulled out the Ultimatum Gambit, a powerful move, but a desperate one. To outsmart my arch-nemesis I would have to employ all my super-smart-ass kid powers.
To be fair, my mother’s less than subtle tactics were born of love and hope. Her daughter, while extremely clever, was no academic genius. After years of tests, theories, and out and out dismissals of my intelligence, I was at last diagnosed with a form of Binocular Dysfunction. It is a rare eye condition that made text blur and lift off the page, making it hard to distinguish letters. It also gave me headaches while reading. Once diagnosed came months of physical therapy that finally cured the condition. My aversion to the act of reading was another story.
Books were still psychologically the enemy. My mother’s allegiance to this foul sovereign garnered her no victories. However, the dreaded Ultimatum Gambit had to be countered. It could be my undoing—
—And as it turned out, it was.
Sitting on a low shelf, neatly laid out in a cascade, was the entire graphic novel series of Elfquest by Wendy & Richard Pini. I vividly remember tingling as I approached the beautifully coloured pages of words and art.
Thus, instead of presenting to my mother a three dollar paperback, I slapped down a twenty dollar graphic novel…a comic book. I had produced something to read, just as she demanded. I had won. Bless her, she simply sighed and acknowledged her defeat. I privately thank her every day for it.
I took that graphic novel home and read it at least once a day. I immersed myself in the world of Elfquest. I lovingly lapped up every nuance of art and storytelling the Pinis rendered on the pages.
However, this moment culminated in more than a lifelong Elfquest addiction. Like a gateway drug, it opened me up to so much more than just one particular fandom. While I still eagerly look up other comics to satisfy my fix, it was Richard’s prose short story anthologies, which opened up the world of book reading to me.
I quickly realized that the dreaded tyrant of literacy could be my most ardent friend. It opened me up to other worlds, other authors, and most importantly, other forms of learning.
Thus, when critics claim that comic books and graphic novels are “low brow” and “destroy literacy” I laugh. I am living proof to the contrary. Every child is different and perhaps comics are not the answer to all of life’s literacy woes. However, academics or parents should not dismiss comics out of hand. Comics are simply a tool, waiting for the right person to use them. If it wasn’t for a comic book, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I certainly wouldn’t be as well read or as accomplished.
I owe it all to the day my mother caved in and gave up a prose book for a brightly coloured graphic novel.
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