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On the difficulty of characterizing what educational comics are about

By John Van Hook

In organizing the following bibliography of 2500 “educational” comics Sol Davidson faced two daunting hurdles, which he modestly calls “judgment calls”: what are the most sensible categories to sort his titles into and, as he says, in “which category an item should be listed.” The following remarks, from a working librarian familiar with his collection, concern some of the bibliographical issues those judgment calls had to address.

More than with most books, to stipulate what an educational comic is “about” proves to be highly problematic, contingent mainly on the use to which an observer means to put it. Dr. Davidson elected to borrow the broad and simple categories of the Dewey Decimal system, knowing that these would be familiar to most of his readers. But as he explains, these categories are themselves ambiguous. Some of his comics on Julius Caesar show up in the “war” section, others in “world history,” and (in theory, at least) still others might most properly fall within “world biography.” To take a somewhat more challenging example, should the 1976 comic, Marx for Beginners, fall within the parameters of world history, philosophy, or political science? With most books, the answer would depend on the sort of analysis their authors were pursuing. But educational comics are didactic, not analytical, and to classify them accurately one needs to discover what sort of lesson they are each intended to convey.

And this, of course, lies in the eye of the beholder. When professional educators write about the uses of comics, for example, they refer to them primarily as aids for teaching either elementary reading skills or art appreciation. The widely-used Education Index identifies over 200 articles on comics in professional journals for teachers over the past quarter century, and all but a handful of them restrict themselves to one of these two laughably specialized considerations.

Moreover, how we view educational comics often changes over time. Leonard Rifas’ influential 1988 article, “Educational comics: a message in a bubble” (Print 42:6, November-December 1988, 145-157ff) brings up the case of the 1913 comic book, Mr. Block, which featured strips “originally published in the Industrial Worker newspaper” about “a worker foolishly lacking in class consciousness” (145). By the time the Library of Congress got around to cataloging the book’s 1984 reprint, it instead seemed to be not full of revolutionary propaganda but of “caricatures” of the “laboring classes.”

And finally, sometimes an educational comic seems in historical perspective to be defined as much by what it overlooks at least as much as by its intended lesson. The website collector Ethan Persoff has put together on what he calls “Comics with problems” ( posts thirty-one often hilarious examples as of this writing, in February, 2009. Most of these appear to have been issued by flat-footed bureaucrats to teach children lessons on health and safety. For instance, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board distributed the 1980 comic, Rex Morgan, M.D. talks about your unborn child, in which Linda Ballard learns the hard way about fetal alcohol syndrome after her girl friends throw her a hard-drinking baby shower. The next panel shows her and her friends around the dinner table, demurely drinking tea – and puffing away on cigarettes.

Figure 1. Rex Morgan, single panel.

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