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Comic Book Literacy: the Movie

Filmmaker Todd Kent has recently completed Comic Book Literacy, a documentary film exploring the positive potential of comic books in community and education. The film features interviews with a broad number of comic book creators, publishers and fans, many of whom attribute their own love of reading to comics. We spoke to Kent about the making of this film and his thoughts on comics and literacy.

BookShelf: What inspired you to create Comic Book Literacy? Who is our intended audience, and what do you hope they will gain from it?

Todd Kent: I've been making documentaries for a few years and have been reading comics for even longer.  I had always wanted to combine the two interests of mine.  From time to time I had heard various stories of comics being used to teach and I was even more aware of the undeserved stigma that the medium often carried.  I knew that if I did a film about comics that I would want to portray them in a positive way.

My wife is a public school teacher and at one point I had given her some of my old comics for her students.  Their response to the comics was dynamic.  The kids were so excited they were actually fighting over them.  In a country struggling to improve childhood literacy rates, these kids were actually fighting over reading material!

This was enough to get me to research comics and their role in education and was the beginning of the documentary.

As for the target audience, I have two groups in mind.  The first group includes people who are either unaware, uninterested or dismissive of the comic book medium.  I hope to alter the negative preconceptions they might have and encourage them to explore the medium and what it has to offer.

The second group would be regular comic readers who might have a myopic view of the medium.  I would also urge them to explore what comics have to offer that they might not be aware of.  The super hero genre, which we all enjoy, is fun but comics can and do go far beyond it.  There are too many comic readers who never stray from their monthly pull list and it's a shame.

BookShelf: What did you learn over the course of filming this documentary? Were there any surprises?

Todd Kent: I learned quite a bit.  I don't hold myself out as an expert in anything so researching a topic like this was both educational and rewarding for me. 

One pleasant surprise was how willing many comic book creators were to participate.  This seemed to be a topic that was near and dear to all of them and I am very fortunate to have the participation of such talented individuals. It was intimidating for me to approach people whose work I have such respect for but each and every one was excited to be able to speak about their positive experiences with comic books.

One specific example of something I learned was regarding visual literacy and the role comics can play in developing it in readers.  Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud and other comic pros speak on this subject in the documentary.  They expound on this concept, which I was mostly unaware of, and explain that the visual narrative of comics helps kids (and adults) become more aware of the way information is presented to them.  This awareness is more important than ever in today's modern world as we are constantly being bombarded with visual information.

BookShelf: While the name of the documentary calls attention to comics and literacy, there seems to be an equal focus on comics and community.  For example, the parts about Heroes4Heroes were some of the best, fully realized moments of the documentary, even though they are not strictly related to literacy and education. Was this your intention from the beginning?

Todd Kent: It's hard to talk about comic books without discussing "comic book culture."  It really is a community.  As I said before I had hoped to show comics in a positive light and the best way to do that is to show different ways that the medium has affected people's lives.

In the process of my research, I learned about young soldiers in World War II improving their reading skills with the use of comics.  I learned that comics played a large role with the G.I.s by providing both an escape from the horrors of war and a little reminder of the American culture they were defending.  Further research led me to a long, storied relationship between the military and comics, from Will Eisner's work on the Army's Preventative Maintenance Monthly magazine to the care packages of comics being sent today to the Middle East.

This led me to Heroes4Heroes, a great organization that sends comics and other forms of entertainment to soldiers stationed overseas.  Their story fit well in the film as I was hoping to not just highlight the educational merits of comics in a strict sense but to give an overall picture of a comic book culture that has overlapping themes and relationships in a variety of ways in many people's lives.

BookShelf: In this film, you have an impressive array of comic book creators, publishers, and industry professionals extolling the virtues of literacy through comics.  Many of them speak of the inspiration they received from comics they read as children. With that in mind, what comics would you recommend for children today?

Todd Kent: One of the goals I had in the film was to not just say, "Comics are great for kids!" and leave it at that but to also give some examples for people who would like to try out the medium.

To that end, I included TOON Books (a highly regarded publisher of children's literature in comic book form), Capstone Press (publishing comics that focus on specific science and history concepts) and Papercutz (which not only brought back Classics Illustrated but also publishes a wonderful line of all ages material).

It's also the reason I featured "Free Comic Book Day."  If there were still people on the fence about trying comics then I wanted to present a way they could sample from the best publishers at no cost.

Outside of that there are several additional examples of comics that children would love.  DC & Marvel publish a few all ages titles each that utilize their extremely recognizable characters. Archie Comics has quietly been publishing quality all ages comic content for decades. Comics have often been thought of as a "boys club" but Archie Comics can be a good way to interest young female readers, an often ignored demographic in the comic book world.

My best recommendation, however, would be to find a good comic book store with a friendly professional staff.  A great comic book store employee will always point you in the right direction for your child's particular interest.

BookShelf: What are your plans for the film now that it is finished?

Todd Kent: There are no shortage of hurdles in the world of independent filmmaking.  With production complete our next hurdle is distribution.  We are submitting to film festivals and comic book conventions for screening consideration and hope to screen the movie throughout 2010 with the end goal being a wide release for the DVD.

My other goal is to do what I can to support the industry. If I can help to introduce new readers or to push existing readers to reexamine the possibilities of the medium then I will consider this film a success.

More information about Comic Book Literacy and a promotional trailer are available at http://www.comicbookliteracy.com.