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The Great Power (and Responsibility) of Perception

By Guest Blogger: Todd Kent

“Comics have always been looked down upon as a ghetto medium.”

That is a quote from James O’Barr (“The Crow”) from the documentary “Comic Book Literacy” which I recently completed. It is one of the biggest lessons I learned from my experience producing the film. Well, not necessarily from the producing process, but rather the promotional process.

You see, making the movie is only one aspect of filmmaking. Another, almost equally important part, is the promotion of the film. No one can see your movie if they’ve never heard of it. It is during this stage (that I am in currently) that I find myself gaining even more insight into the perception of the medium of comic books. During production I surrounded myself with some of comics’ biggest proponents. I was receiving a constant influx of good cheer, optimistic outlooks and unabashedly boisterous cheerleading for the concept of using comic books for education.

This led to a warm and fuzzy sense of accomplishment and complacency that I began to feel for the medium. Because, hey, we have made it, right? Everyone now loves comics and teachers and librarians are stocking the shelves with everything from The Spirit to Spider-Man as fast as they can. The general public has now accepted Batman and Wolverine as peers to Tom Sawyer and David Copperfield….right? To quote a phrase that was also equally and infamously incorrect: “Mission Accomplished!”

Sadly, no.

Don’t get me wrong. The medium has come a long way from the demonized scapegoat it was in the fifties and the neutered cypher it was in the sixties. Sure, libraries are allowing them shelf space and book clubs are cautiously inviting them over for tea, but the beating that the reputation of comic books took in the past has yet to heal completely for the general public.

“The General Public.” That’s a phrase often used by comic book readers. For example, in fanboy circles, the “worth” of a character is routinely gauged by his or her level of recognition by the general public (e.g. people who don’t read comics). Who hasn’t heard the argument that “Character X” is better or more successful that “Character Y” because “Character X” is more well known by the general public?

It harkens back to the so-called “Grandma Test.” The more random information your Grandmother knows about a particular comic book character (“Kryptonite hurts Superman” or “Batman drives the Batmobile”), the more relevant the character becomes.

It’s a deeply flawed test of worth, but it does call attention to the preoccupation that many comic book readers have with the medium’s significance to the non-comic book reading population. Why do we have this obsession with the opinion of people who have no interest in comics?

Primarily it is because it is very rare to find a non-comic book reader who has no opinion on comics. Most non-comic book readers have a negative view on a medium with which they have had no first hand experience.

Which leads back to O’Barr’s quote: “Comic books have always been looked down upon as a ghetto medium.”

And in many ways, they still are. As I said earlier, I’m now in the process of promoting “Comic Book Literacy” and in this Facebooking, Twittering world of ours, one of the best ways to interact with people of similar interests is to post links to relevant content. And there is no shortage of online articles about the use of comics in the classroom.

Many of them, however, begin with the premise that to use a comic book to teach a student is a surprisingly unique concept. And to be fair, in most classrooms, it it. But the tone of incredulity frequently used in these types of articles almost reinforces the negative perception that the general public has of the medium.

“What? Comics used to teach? What an odd idea! Well, I guess even something like comic books can be useful sometimes.”

Do you see how this might undermine the credibility of a struggling medium?

Now I don’t mean to be overly negative. I’m not forsaking the silver lining because the dark cloud seems so ominous. Comics have come very a long way and their reputation continues to improve day by day. I do truly believe that one day the inclusion of a comic book in a lesson plan won’t so much as raise an eyebrow.

But we must realize that with all the progress we’ve made there is still resistance to the idea of comic books as legitimate literature, much less teaching tools.

So here comes the obligatory question: “So what can I do?”

And here is the obligatory answer: Many libraries and schools accept donations. Donate your comics. Give comics to your kids, your nieces and nephews, the neighborhood kids. Create the next generation of comic book readers. It won’t happen overnight but eventually, little by little, public perception will begin to shift and comic books will take their rightful place in the world of literature.

Years ago Fredric Wertham gave comics a black eye and a bloody nose. But all wounds can heal with time.

Todd Kent

Dallas based filmmaker Todd Kent writes and produces documentary content that ranges from education to goofy. For more information visit: http://toddkentwebsite.com