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Great Scott! Comic book readers are 'smarter than your average bear'

Many young people can recall being told to put down their comic books and get serious about what they were reading.

The comic book as a form of literature has been lampooned in the media since its inception. Critiques have included the following: too simplistic, gory, propaganda, sexist, morally bankrupt, and pulp fiction at best. Of course, the debate was not helped by the numerous advertisements, over the past seven decades, of novelty items such as X-ray glasses, Sea Monkeys, and muscle enhancement programs. Also the incorporation and invention of such words as "kroonk", "snikkt", and "boof" didn't help either.

Comic Book Readers Are 'Smarter Than Your Average Bear'

However, long-time collectors and readers of these publications will argue differently. Many readers, including this one, suggested that some rather complex social, psychological, scientific, and historical themes, theories and words have been a part of these texts. The role of imagination and pictorial explanations of these aforementioned concepts abound. The institution of the Comics Code, a voluntary, self-regulating body, was created by the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954, sought to modify and monitor the behavioural aspects of comic books as the general public complained about their content of violence, gore and horror, according to a Time Magazine issue on September 1954.

While vocabulary was not a major aspect of the Comics Code Criteria, it did mention as a prohibition, "Words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden." The depiction and use of the words, "crime", "drugs" and "terror" were all flashpoints of censorship and debate. In 2011, the last publisher of comic books dropped the Code and all publishers favoured internal mechanisms of censorship and screening. The mere fact that the Comics Code lasted for such a duration taints the argument for this literature to take on a semblance of legitimacy. Or does it?

Comic Books and Graphic Novels Part of Curriculum

The Ontario Curriculum, for elementary education, in Language Arts, cites comic books and graphic novels as one source under the strand of Reading, in the subsection, Variety of Texts (Section 1.1) to be used in the classroom. I am certain that educators and parents alike would, upon reading this, view it as preposterous, and perhaps even label it as, "A lackluster idea from the Government of Ontario". However, this is not the case.

In a previous article, "Will Comic Book Heroes Save Ontario's Boys?" I suggested that, "These texts inspired students to begin reading." Eventually, once some fascinating narratives about science fiction or time travel were touched upon; students will ultimately seek out more comprehensive literature. The purpose of my current research was to go beyond the content of this literature and perform a diagnostic examination into the quality of the vocabulary (lexicon) found within these texts. Having taught both Language Arts at the elementary level (100 per cent EQAO) and at the secondary level (earlier in my career), as well as preparing students to write the independent school's Secondary School Admissions Test, the breadth of my experience facilitated the documentation of high lexicon words from 100 comic books.

The results were fascinating. Out of the 100 comic books, each issue contained an average of 825 total words of conversation and narrative text. There existed, on average, the inclusion of 27 individual, high lexicon words per title. However, numerous repetitions of these words, some even in a medium to high frequency placement level, produced some captivating conclusions. Of the 335 high lexicon words found in 100 comic books, each word was found at least twice, with 51 of those words repeating more than twice. Thus, if we subtract the higher repeating words from the total of 335 high lexicon words (284), and then multiply that number by 2 (occurrence rate), adding the cumulative occurrence rates of the 51 words, we would arrive at (568 + 422) 990 high lexicon words per 82,500 words of text (1.2 per cent).

Students Who Read Comic Books Are 'Smarter Than Your Average Bear'

Manfred J. von Vulte showcases a display of comic book paraphernalia in his classroom at Northmount School

Cumulatively, 1.2 percent for the entire study, and an average of 3.27 percent per issue might not seem too significant, but when the lists of catalogued words are examined, this statistic becomes impressive. This research required some comparative analysis for it to resonate. Using the qualifying 325 high lexicon words as a benchmark, the local community newspaper, The Scarborough Mirror had three per 825 words (0.36 per cent), the Toronto Star had eight per 825 words (0.96 per cent), and the National Post had 12 per 825 words (1.45 per cent). The average Iron Man comic book has 67 per 825 words (8.12 per cent). Even the researched average of 27 high lexicon words per 825 total text, denotes 3.72 per cent.

Now it's impressive. What makes these words so significant? I wanted to cross-check them against some of the words required for some significant testing moments in a student's life. Given that comic books are only one of many sources of literature being suggested under the "Variety of Texts" subsection of the Language Arts curriculum; these results are encouraging. The S.S.A.T. (Secondary School Admissions Test), administered to applicants of private/independent secondary schools in North America had a 10 percent correlation with the list of high lexicon words. The SAT (trademark name), taken by secondary school students for university applications in the United States, had an average of 38 per cent coverage from the list. Finally the G.R.E. (Graduate Record Examination), taken by university Bachelors Degree graduates, had an 11 per cent correlation with my research.

The Power of the Graphic Novel's Lexicon Revealed

Several conclusions can be drawn from these findings. The following may account for the aforementioned results: the education of the writers and illustrators, the broad audience (age and demographic spectrums), the perceived intelligence level of the audience, the respect the writers have for that intelligence level, and the counter-culture treatment of the audience from that of the pedantic Hollywood cinema's handling of audiences as children who require full explanations and happy endings. There was too the notion that the sophisticated, and unfairly labelled, "Comic book Geek" is on average, well-read, and to borrow a quote from the cartoons, "Smarter than your average bear." What about these results and the comic book reading world?

In April 1996, DC Comics and Marvel Comics jointly published a four-edition, limited series, which chronicled the match-ups of their greatest superheroes against each other. The story line featured one epic battle between The Hulk and Superman, with Superman winning. Five of the encounters were previously voted on by fans, and their outcomes predetermined based upon that voting. If these encounters were grounded in something other than fan voting, like the level of vocabulary that one would find in these respective publications; the final decisions in some of these bouts might be markedly different. Taking an average of five Superman titles and five Hulk titles, the Hulk has an average of 26 higher lexicon words as compared to Superman's 20. However, the 1996 result between Batman and Captain America is sustained, with Batman achieving a score of 34 higher lexicon words to Cap's 21. Perhaps, both publishing houses would consider a re-match?

Comic books are wonderful forms of entertainment and storytelling. They are the "stuff" of imagination, hope and wonder. Are they a hook to get non-readers interested in fiction? Sure. Are they a waste of a young mind's need to read compelling literature with new additions to vocabulary? They are most certainly not. Comic books are a gateway to richer literature and the exploration of new, innovative, and perhaps even, untried ideas. As much as they open a window into these intriguing aspects of the future, they also take a reader by the hand and acquaint them with powerful words from the often underused lexicon of the English language. As much as they are an excellent device for the E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) student, they also challenge the mind of the mid-level to gifted student with words, ideas, and theories that would even remain challenging for those taking a graduate school entrance examination.

You can discount this article, but do me favour, ask three friends what nucleation, pyroplasmic, and rapaciousness mean? If they don't know, it might be time to give the comic book another look, or perhaps, a read.

—Manfred J. von Vulte
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