Comics & Literacy

Comics and literacy research, 1940s-1950s

A significant number of studies concerning comics, done largely in the 1940s and 1950s, with a few performed earlier, involved interviewing school children in order to determine which of them were reading comics, which comics were being read, and how many.  Paul Witty was involved in two large scale studies of this type. The first, conducted in 1927 with Harvey Lehman, drew data from a questionnaire concerning play activities distributed to 5000 students in Kansas. The statistical data gathered indicated that reading the Sunday “Funnies” was one of the most popular “play activities” among both boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 15, with the activity somewhat more popular among children in towns than those in the country (Lehman & Witty, 1927).   Witty conducted a similar study, surveying and interviewing 334 pupils in grades 4-6, in Evanston, IL about their comic book reading habits. Findings again indicated the high popularity of comic book reading as a leisure activity among children, and found that Superman and Batman were the two most popular comic books among both boys and girls (Witty, 1941a).

Witty concludes his article on the Evanston study with thoughts on how parents and teachers could address “the problem” of comics, and in so doing adopts the language of Sterling North, terming “good” books an “antidote” to comics:  …teachers might well proceed a step further, and attempt to surround children with a variety of good literary sources… in publications such as the Disney Readers, the Story Parade Adventure Books, and the New World Neighbors. In the first two sets of books, an effective antidote for the current craze for comic magazines is found… (Witty, 1941a, p. 104). In a second paper on the same study, Witty (1941b) further describes ways in which teachers can use comics as a bellwether to determine a child’s interests, and then channel those interests away from comics towards print literature.  Thus Witty provides another instantiation of the view that comics is a genre of children’s literature that is in some way harmful to young people, something which teachers and parents must guide their children away from.    

Other studies of children’s reading habits in regards to comics were constructed in ways that conceive of comics as somehow opposite of library materials. These conceptions were always in terms of school and public libraries, since their focus was primarily on the reading habits of children, but they do betray an attitude among the researchers that comics have no place in libraries.  For example, in her analysis of comic book and non-comic book readers in the Farmingdale, New York Elementary and Junior High School, Heisler (1946/1947) defines “books other than comic books read for information or enjoyment” as “library books” (p. 459).  Blakely (1958), in his study of seventh grade reading habits, also codes non-comics reading by opposing comics and libraries: As a measure of “legitimate” reading, each questionnaire also asked the child to list all books of the type obtainable at a library, which he had read “within the last month”… (p. 294).  Both Heisler and Blakely found no data to support that comic books had either a positive or negative effect on educational achievement. Also in both cases the researchers stopped short of expressing a positive view of comic book reading by children, noting instead that further study was needed.     

In all of the above studies, the conceptual framework established around comics treats all comics materials as interchangeable, a homogenous variable introduced into the environment of the child.  Because academic comics-related research such as this did not view the comic books themselves as unique artifacts worthy of preservation for study, they provide no real motivation for comics collection development in academic libraries.   Even academic studies from the period that focused on the physical form of comic books did so in ways that disinclined library collection development.  For example, studies by Thorndike (1941) and Hill (1943) analyze the vocabulary in comics text for reading difficulty.  Studying four comic books published by National Comics, Thorndike places the vocabulary at around the fifth or sixth grade level.  However, Thorndike (1941) makes an effort to keep his findings separate from controversies concerning the effects of comics on children, stating: "In this report, attention has been paid only to the words of the comics, not the ideas… Whether the comics provide exposure to a viciously distorted and unrealistic world, whether they merely provide a rather innocuous way of wasting children’s time, or whether they provide a needed vicarious release for tensions and aggressions is a vital question… and not one which we are able to resolve here" (p. 112). 

Hill (1943) also did not venture into the issue of the emotional effects of comics on young people in his study of the vocabulary levels of comic strips, only concluding that, compared to Thorndike’s results, the vocabulary in newspaper comic strips seemed somewhat simpler. Hill (1943) did address one anti-comics accusation, the overabundance of slang, foreign, or made up language, by reporting that his word count found very little use of slang.  But, again, both of these studies only conceived of comics as a genre of children’s literature, a one-dimensional form worthy of study only insofar as it might effect children educationally. 

Josette Frank was perhaps one of the most prolific authors outside of Wertham on the subject of comics during this period.  Frank was the staff adviser to the Children’s Book Committee of the Child Study Association of America.  Like most researchers, her writings on comics came in answer to concerns over how comics reading would effect children’s reading habits:

"Adults, charged with the responsibility for guiding children’s interests and nurturing their tastes, should concern themselves with any form of reading which reaches so many millions of children. Some parents ask: will the reading of these comics affect children’s literary taste and art appreciation? Will this rapid-paced, easy picture reading affect their reading habits?  Will so much action or mystery or exciting adventure affect their nervous systems?  And, lastly, how can more enduring cultural interests be made attractive enough to equal the comics in juvenile appeal?" (Frank, 1942, p. 76). 

The questions Frank poses are drawn directly from the accusations of North; in the reference to affecting young nervous systems, Frank is quoting North directly.  Frank’s approach to comics study remained the same throughout her writing; like Witty (above) she focuses on reassuring parents that comics were not harmful, and advising that children’s interests in comics be used to direct them towards better reading.
The Children’s Book Committee of the Child Study Association undertook an analysis of a sampling of comic books in order to address their popularity and articulate their appeal to children, and also to quantify their content (Frank, 1944).  Frank (1944) is somewhat unique among comics scholars of this period in that she makes explicit “…not all comic books are alike. There are wide differences not only in their content, but also in their editorial standards regarding selection of material, style, art work, and printing” (p. 215).  Nonetheless, Frank, like many other comics scholars with both positive and negative views of comic books, equated comics with genres of children’s literature, using the Children’s Book Committee’s classifications of comics content to note: “Any librarian will at once recognize these as the same categories which are pre-eminent favorites on the bookshelves of the children’s reading room (Frank, 1943, p. 159). 

In her earlier writings Frank seems to have viewed comic books as a window into the child’s psyche, and not generally harmful in and of themselves.  “A child who is already disturbed by some emotional conflict may be upset by reading either comics or classics” (Frank, 1943, p. 162).  However, in later writings, when the link between comics and juvenile delinquency was being more fervently argued by psychiatrists and psychologists, Frank seems to have grown more cautious in her recommendations on children reading comics: “Excessive preoccupation with comics reading may be a danger signal, but it may also bring its own dangers” (1949, p. 162).  
Perhaps the most unique research into comics and literacy during this time period was in agreement with one anti-comics accusation. A content analysis of comic books performed by Luckiesh & Moss (1942) examined the possibilities for comics causing physical harm to children, addressing Sterling North’s accusation that comic books were a “strain on young eyes.”  This study of the legibility of comic book lettering was one of the few to yield specific data (rather than opinion or conjecture) that supported anti-comics sentiment.  Although the researchers did find some variation in the type of paper used in printing, the size of lettering, and the use of colored backgrounds, they nonetheless drew conclusions concerning what they called “run-of-the-mill comic books,” that is those books they considered common to the “hoarding” of “typical children” (Luckiesh & Moss, 1942, p. 20).  Their conclusions were “…that most comic books represent a great step backward in the matter of safe-guarding the eyesight of children,” and “Unless comic books can be greatly improved from the viewpoint of visibility and readability, they should not survive” (Luckiesh & Moss, 1942, p. 24).
Anti-comics sentiment in the 1940s                                      Anti-comics sentiment in the 1950s                                                   Resources