THE SECRET ORIGIN OF READING WITH PICTURES
Founder and President
The year was 1984. Reagan was in the White House, the Macintosh had just introduced the world to the graphic user interface, and I looked like this:
Congratulations, your cuteness quota for the day has officially been reached.
Like my favorite superhero (Three guesses as to who that is...), I too grew up in a small, Midwestern farm town where I was taught old-fashioned values of right and wrong. Sadly, that’s where the similarities ended. Despite my best efforts, I never managed to develop superpowers of any kind. I mean, I must have jumped from the top of every piece of furniture in the house at least a dozen times over, but to no avail. I even said “Up, up and away!” and everything. Not only could I not fly, all that leaping headfirst from high places also taught me that I wasn’t exactly invulnerable either…
Yet lack of superhuman abilities aside, life was good. My mother, a single parent who worked full-time (and then some) to provide for us, still always found the time to be there for me whenever I needed her. And we may not have had much in the way of money, but we always had books. Lots and lots of books. We practically lived at the public library. In fact, we were once named “Library Family of the Year.” Which I didn’t even know was a thing, but if anyone was it, it was us. In fact, mom would later “go pro” by becoming a school librarian herself, but at this point she was merely an enthusiastic amateur.
This is one mullet away from being the greatest hipster family photo of all time.
As part of her training regimen, she would read to me every night without fail. She usually chose the book, but occasionally I got to make the selection. Unsurprisingly, I almost always chose a comic. And mom was a real trooper about it. She would do special voices for all the characters and would make it a real event. It was pretty much the greatest thing ever.
Then the mom lost her voice halfway through reading me an issue of the original Marvel Comics’ run of The Transformers. (Don’t worry, she was fine. It was just some laryngitis.) This was completely unacceptable. Optimus Prime was in a lot of danger, and I had to be sure that he was going to be okay.
So with mom out of commission, I had no choice but to finish the issue myself. I already had some fundamental skills and basic vocabulary, but I had never even attempted to read something this advanced on my own before. Yet I was able to use the images as a kind of support structure to help me through the narrative and provide context for all the (many) words in the text that I didn’t already know. In essence, I used the comic to teach myself how to read the comic.
After that, it was on like motherflippin’ Donkey Kong. Mom was granted early retirement as my reading assistant, (with full pension and benefits, of course) and I started reading everything I could get my hands on… books, newspapers, magazines and, naturally, comics. Mom taught me to value reading, but it was comics that taught me love it. Moreover, comics became my secret scholastic weapon; my ladder to high-level literacy. The comics format itself allowed me to read at a much higher grade level than my peers and engage with advanced concepts from a very young age. In fact, I took the SAT test as a 6th grader and scored high enough to earn admission to my local community college.
My unauthorized biography.
I went on to attend Northwestern University on a National Merit Scholarship where I majored in Film because it was the closest thing I could find to majoring in Comics. After graduation, I teamed up with artist Erich Owen, and together we won TokyoPop’s Rising Stars of Manga contest in 2005 with the first Mail Order Ninja short story. We were quickly signed to a book deal, landed a national syndication contract in papers like The LA Times and The Boston Globe and then put out our first volume to a resounding… “Meh.”
Bookstores were still figuring out how to sell children’s graphic novels while comic shops already knew that they couldn’t. My comic career seemed doomed before it had even really begun. Thankfully, mom was there to save the day as usual. She recommended that I start promoting my book in schools and libraries because they were actively looking for quality, age-appropriate graphic novels.
My local branch of the Chicago Public Library just happened to be having a graphic novel event that weekend, so I introduced myself to the librarian as a comic book writer and offered to be the “guest speaker.” She agreed, and I showed up the next day with absolutely no idea what I was going to talk about. So I just talked about how I became a writer, about what makes the comic medium unique and about what Batman does on his day off. That last one is a bit of a cheat. Batman never takes a day off because crime never takes a day off.
The point is that everyone had a great time, myself included. The chance to interact with kids who were excited about comics and then get them even more excited about comics, well it was really something special. So I started doing it more often, until I actually got kind of good at it. Good enough that schools and libraries from around the country started calling me up to find out how much I charged for out-of-state events.
Me teachin’ the young people ‘bout the comics.
Mail Order Ninja had become a legitimate hit in the school/library community, and me along with it. So I started traveling all over, averaging at least one school/library event per week for nearly three years. And though I was brought in to be a speaker, I also made it a point to listen. I listened when teachers told me stories about how comics had enabled them to reach the un-reachable kids. I listened when they told me that they wished they could do more with the format, but there were just too many barriers in the way. I listened when they asked me for my help in changing it.
I listened, but I had no idea how to answer. There were people and organizations out there trying to make a difference, but they were operating with scarce resources and in relative isolation from one another. Thus, the good work that they did went largely unnoticed and unused by the world at large. It was a giant, systemic problem that was way too big for some random, mildly successful comic book writer to possibly do anything about. So I just sighed, shook my head and moved on with my life.
Besides, I had more... pressing priorities.
Then I got into a fight with a lunatic on the subway, and everything changed. It was the summer of 2008, and I was on J train heading to JFK airport in New York City after exhibiting at the MoCCA Arts Fest. A scuffle broke out when two people each laid claim to the same seat. It quickly escalated in a full-out brawl involving a half-dozen people. One of them, a short but burly man in his mid-to-late 30s, was also a stark, raving madman.
“Mr. Crazy,” as I affectionately came to know him, began shouting incoherently and lashing out at anyone and everyone in arm’s reach, including a group of children ranging in age from pre-school to fifth grade. Their parents were trying to shield them, but no one was doing anything to stop the perpetrator. That’s when I looked down at the S-shield tattoo on my right bicep and asked myself: “What Would Superman Do?”
I'm sorry, I'm a little lost… Anybody know the way to the gun show?
So I tried using heat vision. Nothing. Despite this being the perfect opportunity for me to spontaneously develop powers… Nothing. I quickly switched tactics, instead asking “What Would Superman – Powerless Under the Rays of a Red Sun – Do?” I then immediately tackled the guy, giving his indiscriminate rage a single target: me.
“Don’t you judge me!” he yelled while trying to gouge my eyes out. I made what, to my mind, was the eminently sensible counteroffer to stop judging him just as soon as he stopped being insane. It was, unfortunately, rejected. Thankfully, I managed to hold him off until we reached the next stop. Police officers, having been alerted by frantic 911 calls from the other passengers, swarmed onto the train to haul Mr. Crazy and the other instigators away.
With the fight over and the perps on their way to One Police Plaza, the train continued on its journey. The car was quiet save for the sobbing of the children huddled in the corner of the rail car. Their parents tried to tell them that they were safe now, but they wouldn’t listen. But I had something that I knew would get their attention: comics left over from the show.
Putting those books in those kids’ hands was like flipping the happy switch. The tears were gone, replaced by 1000-watt smiles and demands that their mothers help them figure out all the words that they didn’t already know.
It was the single most amazing moment of my life.
It made me realize that comics had been there for me for as long as I could remember. For a little boy without a father, they provided male role models actually worth emulating. For a kid who wasn’t supposed to amount to anything, they gave me the tools I needed to excel in academics. For a young man starting chemotherapy treatments the month before he graduated college, they inspired me to seize the day because tomorrow might never come.
Which is a long-winded and frankly melodramatic way of saying that Hooked on Comics Worked for Me!™
And all those teacher’s I’d encountered, they knew that it could do the same for their students. They just didn’t have the tools necessary to make it happen. I knew it was still too big a problem for me to address on my own, so I decided – right there on the J train - that I had best form an organization.
Our first wave of recruits.
Now here’s where it stops being my story and becomes our story. The story of co-founders like Katie Doland, John Shableski, David Rapp and Peter Gutierrez. The story of the early board members who helped take us to the next level like Tim Sarrantonio, Trevor Mueller, Rob Valois and Michael Moreci. The story of our new crop of Board members like Chris Wilson, Michael Lavin, Britt White, Robert Becker, Kat Kan, Ian Chipman and many more. The story of our many volunteers like Scott Heinowski, Aliza Weinberger, and Lys Fulda. The story of our tireless Executive Director, Laura Harper. The story of all the contributors to the first RWP Anthology and now The Graphic Textbook. The story of all the educators who have used our resources in the classroom and all the students who have benefitted from them.
But most of all, it’s the story of you, our supporters and backers. We’re a non-profit organization, but our bills don’t get paid with government grants or oversize novelty checks from private foundations. Everything we have ever accomplished has been because of support form individuals like you.
Now we’re asking for your help again, this time to produce The Graphic Textbook, the most ambitious and potentially gamechanging project in RWP history.
We really can make a difference, but only with your help. So please, if hooked on comics worked for you, then help us get them into schools so that they can work for kids everywhere.
Lil' Josh would really appreciate it.