Learning Through Comics

Comic books are a profound form of expression and consumption. They combine the trance like state of imagination a book is able to pull us into, with the engaging visuals of sequential art work. But it’s not like watching a movie. The experience of reading a comic book seems more involved than that. There’s a higher sense of immersion and most importantly connection. A comic book stays with you longer, inside your mind, well after the final page is turned.

Taking on a quiet appreciation for just how potent the experience of reading a comic book can be, it got me thinking about my career in teaching – and the times at which a comic book had been used to teach me a thing or two in my own life.

It got me mulling over the effectiveness that comics have in allowing us to absorb, comprehend and recall information. In some sense, the comprehension required when reading a novel is somewhat diffused when it comes to a comic. The sequential art work ties together the ideas being presented in an almost effortless way for the reader, making it easier to ‘get’ what’s going on. Unlike a novel, where each event in the story unfolds inside the mind of the reader through the translation of words, a comic doesn’t require one to strain nearly as hard in order to understand what’s going on since the imagery is already there.

And that imagery gives us so much to work with – immediate articulation of the mood, environment, characters and context of the scene unfolding.

The other day I read this little comic named Belief - http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe - which delved into a complex and academic topic in psychology that focuses on the way in which our belief systems skew the perception of reality. I love psychology, so I dig this kind of thing, but for most other folk concepts like this aren’t even consciously something they think about let alone show an interest in.

But this comic did such an excellent job at explaining it, and showing it, in a compelling, interesting and engaging way that seemed to make you forget that you were learning anything at all. What’s more is it really seemed to make the information stick, my guess is this was due to the fact that each concept within the presentation had been associated to the imagery within each frame. It draws you in regardless of how familiar you are with the concept of ‘belief systems’ and it holds your attention from beginning to end. In other words, once you begin reading this comic, it’s hard to stop scrolling to the next panel – even if you might have initially found the subject kinda dry.

Then of course you’ve got the ageless volumes of Scott McCloud’s ‘Making Comics’ series, which is notorious for delivering information in a very similar and appropriately themed format. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you what a must have each Scott McCloud book is. Why? Because not only are his books chock-full of insight, the knowledge imparted has been plated up in an easy to digest, frame by frame sequence of information. Somehow our brains just love being spoon fed information in this way, it makes learning enjoyable.

So this opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for comics and their potential to teach people about incredibly complex topics in a way that makes the information easy to understand and allows it to stick!

What I’m saying is Comic Book Creators may not have to limit their scope of ideas to fictional stories, exclusively meant for entertainment. We know that in every great story there’s a lesson to be learned. But how far could we push that notion? Could we take the complex subjects you’d find in science, psychology, mathematics and history and make a ‘comic book lesson’ out of them? What would that look like and would it work?

Really, our ability to community ideas in fully formed sentences is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Before that it was grunts, bludgeoning and of course drawings! Almost every civilization to ever walk the earth told stories and taught their fellow homosapien through illustrations. And it stuck throughout the ages. Still, till this day, one of the most effective forms of communication is to ‘show’ an idea rather than to ‘tell’ someone an idea.

Taking all of this into consideration, something I’ve tried my best to do when teaching is to keep students engaged through sequentially illustrated slides. Well not quite sequential, kind of a cross between a comic, animation and a picture book. Yet none the less the characters I’ve drawn to help explain the teachings within my courses seem to add that extra level of immersion. They’re effective.

I also take the time to create them for a couple of other reasons too – mostly to show the student some kind of proof that I know what I’m talking about (nothing worse than learning from someone who can’t walk their talk am I right?), and also to help inspire the student, because let’s face it, beautiful looking comic book art is going to make you want to learn how to draw comics all the more.

And that’s where the lovely lady I’ve drawn up in this blog post comes in. She is in fact one of the sequential slides that’ll be featured inside the ‘How To Draw Women: Female Heads’ Course. I try to sprinkle a little bit of humor into these illustrations as well, if for no other reason than to help solidify what's being taught.

In this particular part of the course I touch on the problem many of us face when it comes to drawing the female head – which is for one reason or another, though we start out with the best intentions to draw a beautiful, comic book babe, she winds out looking more like an oddly proportioned cave man. There’s a bunch of reasons for that – primarily the bad habit of over articulating and defining the bone structure of the face, rendering in too many details and replacing soft subtlety with chiseled definition!

But let’s refocus in on how sprinkling these illustrations throughout the course actually benefits the learner, because it’s not just for show. This particular section of the 'How To Draw Women: Female Heads' is only about a minute or two long, if that, yet it consists of several illustrations. And the reason they’re there is that they level up the immersion tenfold by hooking you in immediately and vividly describing a problem we’re all able to relate with - in an entertaining way. If you’re entertained, curious and interested, then you’ll be giving your full attention to the lesson being taught.

After all, that’s why we so often become disengaged in a learning environment – the delivery of the content is bland, boring and just plain unstimulating. Of course your mind is going to wander off with the fairies! I couldn’t tell you how many times the teacher busted me at school for literally smuggling comics inside my text book and reading them during math class. How could he ever have competed with the entertainment value I was getting there?