The Funny Pages

It would be nice to have an enriching story to tell about how I learned how to read by having some well-intentioned and influential teacher placing that one special book in my hands that unlocked the mystery of words on the page.  In this telling, it would be some some classic picture book that became the spark that began the fire of reading, nurturing a love of words that has never quite gone out. Well, not quite. How I learned to read was with the funny pages, the daily and Sunday newspaper comics, and I will admit that those funny pages continue to this day to shape my interests in the connections of words and images to this very day.

One of my earliest memories of deciphering words into meaning is reading Charles Schultz’ Peanuts, and trying to figure out what Woodstock was thinking, and why Snoopy looked that way. I distinctly remembering how I sounded out the words slowly, trying them out on my tongue, and then realized in that sudden rush of joy: I was reading! I finally understood the words. (And here, then, is the nod to my teachers, who no doubt set forth the groundwork for this moment with all of the phonics hammered into my head. I need to thank them, too, although the Basil readers to come paled in comparison to the comics).  On closer examination, I also realized that the illustrations were as important as the words – Charlie Brown’s anxious facial expressions said more than the speech bubble. The comic page in the newspaper became my literary home.

I also still remember well the ink-stained fingers of my newspaper delivery mornings as an adolescent. On Sunday mornings, before anyone else received their delivery of the New Haven Register, I would sit on top of the red newspaper box where the bundles would get delivered. First, I would open up the pack by slitting open the plastic wrapper with my pocket knife, and then I would open up the first newspaper on top, turning quickly to the colored comic section. The rest of week was black and white, but on Sunday, it was full color. It was early enough in the morning that there was often not much traffic along the main street of my town, and in some seasons, I’d have to use the streetlight above for a reading lamp.

But there I would sit, enjoying the first look at Sunday comics before anyone else. And my fingers would turn a rainbow hue from the ink coming off the news, the black of the front page mixed with the colored ink of the comics. My reading done, I would pack up the bundle and begin my methodical journey around the neighborhood, delivering the newspapers. All the while, though, my mind would be replaying the antics of Calvin and Hobbes, or the adventures of Spiderman, or nutty ideas of The Far Side, some of which I still don’t get.

I was lucky in that my mother, in all of her political-active, left-leaning glory, celebrated writing and reading in many forms. It was her laughter that had me reading Bloom County and trying to understand what the word “satire” meant as she shared the comic with me, and it was eavesdropping on her conversation with my father about Doonesbury being moved to the editorial page that had me wondering about the political firepower of comics, and about how a few panels could ruffle a lot of feathers. I had never read Doonesbury before, but I sure did now.

The comics were part of my childhood, and when I became an adult, I realized that I wanted to try my hand at creating my own strip. I chose the classroom as the setting for a webcomic, and technology as the wedge, and created Boolean Squared. The art is minimal at best (I wish I had had a partner) but I loved the writing challenge of a comic, and for a year, it ran in the online edition of our local newspaper, The Springfield Republican. I published about 150 comics during my two-year stretch and then retired it. Writing and publishing Boolean Squared was an incredible joy, and a whole lot of work.

That experience of taking what I loved to read and turning it into something I loved to write allowed me to think of composition and creating in a whole new way, and to value all kinds of reading in my students. Magazines, World Record books, fan fiction – they all have a place for readers. I even comics into my classroom on a regular basis for teaching writing craft and for students to read. I have shelves full of graphic novels (the sweet part of a deal for reviewing them for The Graphic Classroom website) that are a big attraction for a lot of my sixth graders.

My students may never experience the ink-stained fingers of my own childhood (kids don’t deliver newspapers anymore, do they? An app is not the same thing, is it?), but they can experience the genre of comics, and who knows? One of them just might be a budding webcomic creator and they just might remember that teacher who valued comics as a piece of writing and art.

By Kevin Hodgson

Kevin Hodgson teaches sixth grade in Southampton, Massachusetts, and does not live in a comic strip. He just acts like it most of the time.

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