18 April 2009

Ronald Reagan, He-Man and Literacy

I was born in December 1978, so I really have no memory of the 70s.  I grew up in an America where Ronald Reagan was president, our society professed its love for hard, honest work and we did things because they were right.  Of course, out of those three, only the Reagan presidency was entirely true, but as a child you believe these things.  After all, few have seen or heard enough to be a cynic at five.

I didn't know about it at the time, but the FCC under Mr. Reagan lifted a longtime ban on having cartoons and toys based on one another in 1981.  On 22 June 1983, I had a baby brother; on 1 September that year, while he was starting to work on crawling, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe debuted on syndicated TV and changed my world.  Whether I watched that first airing I cannot say, but it wasn't long after the show first appeared that I discovered it and was completely captivated.  Plus, He-Man's alter ego was Prince Adam, and that was my baby brother's name.  (Except, of course, he didn't have the title of prince.)  This was controversial, of course, because the series was dismissed as nothing more than a half hour long toy commercial (since Mattel already had the figures on the shelves), and that debate continues.  What I can say about the animated toy commercials of the 1980s is that I learned to read because of them.
This guy wanted my generation to watch...

...this cartoon so we'd want our parents to buy us...

...this toy.  It worked.
To this day, I consider myself an expert (if not a master) of the English language.  I have always loved learning words and prided myself on not only being able to use them--correctly--but to spell them properly, as well.  Classmates who did not want to have to revise their writing never shared papers with me in revision groups.  I delight in typing with an automatic spell-checker running that never flashes red.  Frequently, I am consulted by my wife and friends when they are in search of a word, or spelling thereof.

Strangely, I did not develop this aptitude under the guidance of any language arts teachers in school.  I learned to write by spelling the names of Masters of the Universe characters from the back of action figure packages.  Theoretically, I was maintaining an evolving wish list of action figures, but in reality I was not only taking my first steps into literacy, I was also initiating a lifelong obsession with list making.

I learned more words from comic books than I think I ever learned in school, at least during my elementary years.  I would be lying to say that I read the comic book standards as a child; I never picked up a super-hero comic until 1989, when Tim Burton's Batman piqued my curiosity and I asked to buy Detective Comics #603.  In my formative years, though, I was drawn exclusively to comic books based on the cartoons I watched, chiefly G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero and Transformers.  Briefly, there was also a run of ThunderCats comics, but it was primarily those other two that sustained my interest in reading.

One of the things I loved most about those comics was that their continuity was separate from that of the animated series I also followed.  In the animated world, Optimus Prime commanded the Autobots until 2005, when he died fighting Megatron and was succeeded (eventually) by Rodimus Prime.  In the comic books, Optimus is killed within a video game in issue #24 (January 1987) and is succeeded by...Grimlock!

I grew up with a puppy-kicking terrorist.
I was ready for 9/11.
In the world of G.I. Joe, the difference was even more pronounced; in the place of harmless laser violence, the comic book characters shot real bullets at one another.  Sometimes they died.  Larry Hama imbued that title with very well-researched military realism (he being a Viet Nam vet), and Joe was my child's way of identifying with the rhetoric of Mr. Reagan.  I think Cobra being a "ruthless terrorist organization" is why I so easily accepted the implications of September 11.  While other Americans were frightened to discover people out there wanted to bring death and destruction to our shores, I'd learned to read with such activities.

There were, of course, other things that I read.  I remember Beverly Cleary novels (especially Ramona Quimby, Age 8), and when I discovered baseball I checked out all kinds of books about that subject and its key figures.  There was a startling moment when I learned that Johnny Bench could hold five baseballs in one hand.  A lightbulb of analysis went on when I read about a little boy who helped Stan Musial out of a slump by telling the famed slugger that when he watched him on TV, he couldn't see his jersey number lately.  Musial revised his stance and swing and voila!  Not only was the Cardinals' first baseman out of his slump, but I began to understand the nuances of our national pastime.

I learned "myriad" from this book.
In 1991, I discovered Star Trek and quickly began absorbing countless novels and comics based on that property.  To this day, I know for certain that I first encountered the word "myriad" in the novelization of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pilot episode, "Emissary."  It was used in the back cover synopsis, and before I even opened the book I looked up that word.  (It is synonymous with "plethora," in case you wanted to know.)  Bibliophiles have a low opinion of such books.  Certainly, J.M. Dillard's Star Trek - Bloodthirst (Book #37) lacks the literary significance of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; I do not dispute that.

Licensed works are often a gateway into a new medium for people, though, and so I have always defended them.  This is true of any form of entertainment, really.  How many video gamers started by playing an adaptation of a movie?  How many movie fans discovered their favorite films were, in fact, based on a book?  Maybe Marvel Comics's Transformers isn't on par with Alan Moore's Watchmen, but you know what?  I might not have ever read Watchmen had it not been for the enthusiasm I cultivated reading Transformers.

There is an idea that has circulated for at least most of my lifetime that children should learn to read by being handed books with as few words as possible, and then gradually move them on to more complex sentences.  I'm sure there's a blog entry somewhere by someone who learned to read this way.  I, on the other hand, do not believe that such coddling is helpful for children.  This is not to say that I am any kind of expert on childhood literacy, or that I think every six year old should be handed War and Peace and told to finish it by dinnertime.

Based on what I have seen in my own cousins, nieces and nephews, though, I do not believe that books with limited vocabularies are helping young ones to develop either the ability to read and write better, nor (more significantly) the interest in doing so.  Maybe by removing words like "dirge"--which is a mournful song, and a word I learned because it was the name of a Decepticon--perhaps we've taken away the tantalizing lures that drew children like me into reading.  I know, I know--the average kid is so lazy that he or she would just skip over the word the same way so many of my own peers doubtlessly did.

I cannot help wondering, though, as I reflect on the children in my own family where we went wrong.  For Christmas three years ago, I gave two comic books to my nephew.  They were Christmas-themed issues of Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans Go!, the comic book versions of the popular Cartoon Network animated series I knew he watched.  He wouldn't so much as remove them from their polybags to browse the art.  My cousin received for last Christmas a gorgeous boxed set of hardcover editions of the Twilight series, inspired by her near obsession with last year's movie.  She has yet to begin reading any of the four volumes.

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