The value of comics is grossly underrated. Newspaper strips have been reduced in size over the years, and there aren’t many adults who can avoid a tolerant smile when their kids bring home a Batman comic book. But we may be missing something.
How do we learn to read? The reality is that, at least for fiction, we need something we care about. I can’t recall any fiction we read as school assignments during my early years except Dick and Jane. But I have no idea who they were or what they did. When I was five years old, getting ready for first grade, I was already addicted to Dick Tracy, Blondie, Smilin’ Jack, Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, and the Katzenjammer Kids. And of course Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.
The superhero comics usually carried a block of text in the opening image. The balloon dialogue was fairly easy to pick up, but the intros were challenging, to a degree that I can recall thinking how I would be missing something in the Blue Beetle until I learned to read.
I was in first grade when Pearl Harbor happened. A few weeks later, I found a new hero, Captain America, in our local comic store. A girl who was also a comic fan lived across the street. Her name was Mary. At about the same time, Mary came out of her house one day with a dazzling smile and showed me a comic with Wonder Woman. I can’t be sure, but I think it was her first appearance. It came with the Justice Society, in which she functioned strictly as the secretary. The Atom, the Flash, Hawkman, and the rest of those guys did the grunt work, while Wonder Woman kept the records. But it was a step forward. I have what might be a false memory, but Mary might have commented that Wonder Woman could have taken down any of the regulars.
I had two framed pictures in my bedroom while growing up. One depicted an angel hovering over a bridge that looked ready to collapse at any moment, and the other was of the Justice Society. Both contributed substantially to my early life, providing a sense that I was protected, and granting me a passion for reading that has stayed with me.
I should probably mention that I made my first attempt at writing a novel at around the fourth grade. And it wasn’t Dick and Jane.