Monday, November 5, 2007

Comics and Community Service, Part 1

Something that has always impressed me from organizing the Create a Comic Project (CCP) is the level of support it's received from the general webcomic community. I've contacted dozens of creators, asking them permission to use their comics to teach urban youths, and received overwhelmingly positive replies.

This reflects well on the attitudes underlying today's webcomic culture: the "me first" attitude prevalent in many parts of the entertainment industry have not yet become widespread among webcomic creators. This is likely due to what Ryan North said was the "humbling" experience of being a star in the Internet, but being a regular guy in the real world.

This also indicates an as yet untapped potential among creators: a move towards greater real world visibility through community outreach by volunteering. As Scott McCloud noted in Reinventing Comics: "public perception matters." And there are few things that can create a positive public perception better than community service.

As popular as webcomics have become, they are still far from the mainstream and are subject to the same shadowy misconceptions that have dogged all comics since the 1950's. The anti-comic fervor of that period can be kept from repeating itself if comics increase their public visibility. A preemptive strike of good will, so to speak.

Imagine if, for example, a child's first exposure to comics was through a "how to make comics" program run by a local creator. How would they grow up perceiving the motivations behind the comics they like? What about that child's parents: would they be more or less likely to treat comics with disdain if they saw their child's literacy and creative expression improve thanks to a comics outreach program?

There has been some work in this area over the decades, both from print and online creators. Bill Watterson authorized a teaching guide using Calvin & Hobbes. Jeff Smith has worked with Scholastic to bring graphic novels into the classroom. Michael Bitz of Columbia's Teachers College started the Comic Book Project with the help of Dark Horse.

On the webcomics side, Shaenon Garrity has been volunteering with children since the late 90's at libraries and the Cartoon Art Museum. Tycho and Gabe have written of their exploits in the classroom. Mike Rouse-Deane is raising money for charities with projects like the Kid's Book Project. And, of course, there's the Create a Comic Project.

Despite these efforts, though, there is more that can be done. As large the the webcomic community is, it should be possible to have volunteer events become the nationwide (worldwide?) norm, rather than the exception. The community should begin shifting its attention from "24 hour comics" and toward "24 hour comic volunteering."

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