Friday, May 8, 2009

Get With the Program! Teaching, Programs and Hands-On Demonstrations Using Comics

Both Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo) and Chris Schweizer (Crogan's Vengeance) create comics based on events in history and tell the story of the time from the point of view of a unique character; Schweizer's is a young boy and Sakai's is a samurai rabbit. Both say that they don't write for a kids market; Schweizer says he writes for an adult market and Sakai says he writes for himself. Despite this, both create comics with strong youth appeal.

The panel started with Chris Schweizer explaining how comics can help build vocabulary and reading comprehension for young readers. There is something inviting about comics that make them more attractive to kids than traditional prose. Even complex comics can be more interesting for kids to read and are less difficult to comprehend than their prose cousins, despite the advanced vocabulary and plot complexities.

On the surface, comics seem more fun, but it's a strong mode of storytelling defined by forcible exercises in logical deduction. Between two comic panels, the reader must logically conclude the events that are not seen. It's a classic example of Occam's Razor: the reader assumes the least complex and most likely explanation for things not visually presented in the story.
Schweizer noted, “I don't try to age down my vocabulary or sentence structure; I'm confident that readers will be able to discern the clues from the context.” He made the point that through the juxtaposition of words and pictures, comics have the potential to make unfamiliar words accessible due to the contest in which they are read.

Classic adventure books of 19th and 20th century, which were devoured by young boys, are shockingly complex reads today. As pleasure reads, they take a lot of conscious effort. Those same stories in the form of comic adaptations can be a staple for understanding canonical literature classics.

Schweizer's own comics highlight historical facts and showcase how various time periods relate to each other. He noted that kids often look at history as having very clear specific rights and wrongs, so his goal is to show multiple sides of different historical issues.

The best part Chris's presentation was hearing him read several pages of his comic in full voice actor mode. I think he managed to create a different voice with unique accenting for about ten different pirate characters in addition to sound effects.

In the second half of the program, Stan Sakai discussed the process of bringing historic fact into the creation of unique characters.

Sakai's early interest in comics and samurai movies led to creating his comic Usagi Yojimbo. Comics gave him a love for reading and he wanted to incorporate the two into a single art form and thus became a freelance cartoonist.

Usagi's adventures take place in 17th century Japan which is a time of turmoil in Japan and a very turbulent time in history. Sakai explained that Usagi is a character run story. One strong female character in Usagi Yojimbo, a body guard to a young lord in Japan, was based on the wife of a real historical character who, while her samurai husband was dying at her side, jumped on her horse, charged forward, and cut off the opposing general's head. Another character was inspired by a character in Japanese pop culture: a blind swordsman whose amazing sense of hearing led him to be very precise with a sword. The character in the comic is a Samurai whose strength comes from his strong sense of smell.

Stan finished his discussion with a quick comic sketch of what one attendee did on the way to the MLA conference. In the span of a few minutes, Sakai created a full paneled comic page that was clever and detailed.

Chris Schweizer's next book, Crogan's March, based on the French Foreign Legion, will be out in October. Stan Sakai's full color graphic novel, Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai will be out in November.

Rebecca Krznarich, Reference and Adult Services Librarian, Whitman Public Library

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