The Big Picture
You may know Josh Elder as the writer of the Mail Order Ninja series, but he’s also one of the comics community’s biggest advocates. He’s a reviewer, speaker, and writer who regularly devotes a great deal of his time working on promoting the use of comics to aid literacy and to facilitate learning in schools.
Josh has now started the nonprofit group Reading With Pictures, working with Katie Doland, who serves as director of operations, and a board of several impressive industry minds: John Shableski, a sales manager for Diamond Book Distributors; Professor David Rapp,an associate professor at Northwestern; and Peter Gutierrez, an educational consultant and curriculum developer. As a new venture, RWP is taking on an exciting itinerary. We talked to Josh about his plans for RWP, how he’s moved ahead to the next round in the IdeaBlob contest to win an important grant for the organization (you can vote here), and what he hopes to accomplish with RWP.
Why did you start Reading With Pictures?
The genesis of Reading With Pictures came out of my cartooning workshops at schools across the country. Over the course of the last several years, I’ve visited dozens of schools, spoken before thousands of students and interacted with hundreds of teachers. Over time, a pattern began to emerge: Teachers by and large saw the value of using graphic novels in the classroom but were stymied in their efforts by a number of systemic, institutionalized barriers.
The first was that teachers simply didn’t know which books to use or how to make the best use of them. The second was that there was no significant body of academic research that provided empirical proof of the value of comics in the scholastic environment, thus making it next to impossible to win over skeptical (and rightly so, given the stakes) administrators, school boards, and parents. Third, because school procurement policies were biased against graphic novels, publishers had a clear economic incentive not to put money into producing quality material for that market, because the market wouldn’t pay for it.
I then realized that I would have to go beyond grassroots comics’ evangelism in order to truly effect positive change. I would have to build an organization filled with people smarter and more capable than myself, an organization with significant resources and institutional credibility. I would have to create Reading With Pictures.
Why is this organization needed now? What made this the right time to start this project?
We’re living in a moment of profoundly shifting cultural attitudes toward the comics medium. The graphic novel industry is the strongest growth sector in all of publishing, and the majority of the top 20 highest grossing films of the last 10 years were based on comic properties. Graphic novels even have their own New York Times bestseller list category. As a result, cultural gatekeepers (educators, for instance) are more inclined to view comics as a serious artform than ever before. It also doesn’t hurt that more great work is being produced today than at any time in the medium’s history, and that classic titles are more widely available than ever before.
The concept of media and visual literacy has also been gaining traction in academic and educational circles. Graphic novels—which include incredibly sophisticated forms of text/image interaction as a matter of course—have benefited from this trend for obvious reasons. Media/visual literacy advocates have opened the door for comics to be taken seriously as educational materials while comics provide a “killer app” for teaching media/visual literacy.
How do you and the others involved with RWP work together on the project?
I’m the executive director and the other three hold positions on our board of directors. This means that the indispensible Katie Doland (our director of operations) and I are responsible for most of the day-to-day activities of the organization (including fundraising) and provide the group’s public face. I’m also responsible for providing “big picture” leadership for the organization and directly oversee most of our major projects.
The board offers advice and consent on all projects both great and small while each member contributes on an individual basis according to his own unique skill set. There are only four board members (including myself) at the moment, but we plan to bring on additional members as the need arises. We are also looking to put an advisory board of publishers, academics, educators, and cartoonists in place for those who want to play a role in Reading With Pictures but cannot commit to the responsibilities of full board membership.
Congratulations on making it to the next round in the IdeaBlob contest! What is the next phase?
Thanks! And it’s honestly due to the votes we garnered from your blog post last week that we’re even still in the running. IdeaBlob sponsors monthly contests for $10,000 in seed money to fund startup organizations of all stripes, and Reading With Pictures is currently in the final qualifying round. If we can pull together enough votes by midnight on Wednesday, October 21, then we enter the finals on the 22nd (where all those who voted in the qualifying rounds get to vote again on the finalists) and are just a few hundred votes away from $10,000!
The voting process takes less than five minutes—just register at http://www.ideablob.com/ideas/6565, confirm registration via email and then vote! Each vote counts in a big way and is a quick and easy to contribute to what we’re trying to do with Reading With Pictures.
Anyone wishing to learn more about how they can help our cause can contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our mailing list by sending a blank email to email@example.com.
What will you do with the grant money if you win?
Those funds would go into paying the 501(c)3 tax-exempt status application fees and paying for miscellaneous startup expenses like web domain registration, business cards, and the like. The bulk of it would be reinvested to help spur our first round of fundraising and get some of our initial projects underway.
We have a lot of projects in the works. Here are a few we plan to initiate soon after achieving our tax-exempt status—providing we can find the proper funding, personnel, and access to educational institutions.
The big one: Working in partnership with Northwestern University and other academic institutions to oversee the largest and most comprehensive research study in U.S. history on graphic novels as tools for learning. We plan to conduct surveys, run case studies, and then hopefully oversee large-scale experiments to prove that comics belong in the classroom and then figure out how to make the best use of them.
We also plan to create innovative resources for teachers and publishers, like a searchable, interactive database of lesson plans and comic-centric curriculum. Individual teachers have been creating comic-centric course materials for years, but those materials have never gone beyond the walls of their own classrooms. We plan to create a system that allows teachers across the country to share those materials and insights with each other. That same system can also be used by publishers and educational material companies to create a more efficient market for their products.
We’ll also be creating a brokerage service for educational consultants and a speaker’s bureau for cartoonists. This will make it far easier and less expensive for publishers to develop curriculum for their titles, for schools to host professional development seminars, and for institutions of all kinds (schools, libraries, universities) to procure cartoonists for workshops.
Finally, we plan to launch yet another database, this one devoted to academic papers relating to comics. We hope to create a community to facilitate peer review and foster higher rates of academic citation.
What makes comics and graphic novels such an important tool for teaching reading?
I could probably write a book on this (and Peter Gutierrez is currently doing just that), but I’ll try to restrain myself…brevity is the soul of wit, after all.
I learned to read from comics and they've been my constant literary companions ever since. I went on to be a National Merit Scholar, score a perfect on the ACT Reading Exam, and then graduate from Northwestern University. My first job out of college was as a magazine editor and aside from writing comics professionally, I also freelance for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Comics helped enhance my vocabulary and taught me the invaluable skill (especially in the digital age) of learning to pair words with images in order to more effectively communicate one's message. Comics taught me to love literature, to love reading, to love art, and to love writing. They were a ladder for my scholastic development, not a crutch.
Comics convey information in a different way than pure prose. In truth, a better way, because you can reproduce any block of prose word for word in a comic, but you can’t add images to a novel without making it, well, a comic.
Take Shakespeare, for example. Nothing kills love of the bard more surely than being forced to read him. Shakespeare himself only intended his plays to be read by actors—otherwise he wouldn’t have, you know, written plays. The visual component is absolutely essential to understanding and appreciating Shakespeare, and since his plays are only dialogue, they can be translated with perfect fidelity into a graphic novel. That translation preserves the advantages of a book—footnotes, the ability to experience the story at one’s own pace, portability—while providing that visual component Shakespeare himself clearly considered of paramount importance.
Having images integrated with text takes nothing away from text, just like having sound in a movie takes nothing from the images on the screen. They only complement and enhance. When done correctly, this integration produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
What has the reaction been among teachers toward using graphic novels in the classroom?
Overall, the reaction has been staggeringly positive. No teacher can ignore graphic novels anymore, and few would deny that at the very least, graphic novels are successful in reaching otherwise unreachable students. We want to take full advantage of this paradigm-shifting moment to change education for the better by bringing graphic novels into the classroom, where they belong.
You’re partnered with Northwestern University. How did that partnership come about and what will it mean in the future for Reading With Pictures?
The partnership with Northwestern is one of the most exciting things about the Reading With Pictures project. A major research university studying comics is news all by itself, and we’re hoping that it will inspire other universities to do the same. I’ve also had discussions with the MFA program at Northwestern about creating interdisciplinary courses that focus on creating graphic novels.
This partnership and those discussions would have been inconceivable just a decade ago. We live in very interesting times indeed.
What are the immediate goals of Reading With Pictures?
Our first and most pressing goal is simply to get our organization fully up and running. Then we can work with academics to cultivate research into how graphic novels best function in a scholastic environment. We can provide resources to publishers in order to aid them in developing the best possible classroom materials and then assist educators in making the best possible use of those materials.
We can finally break down the barriers and revolutionize the way the graphic novels are used in education.