Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

Unschooling with Superheroes
(July/August 2005)

by Shana Ronayne Hickman

Comic books and collections of comic strips make for enjoyable reading for kids. Strip collections are easy to find; there are Peanuts books, Family Circus, Heathcliff, and numerous others, including my seven-year-old son Kenzie’s three favorites: Bloom County, Doonesbury and, of course, the unbeatable Calvin and Hobbes. Many comic strips seem tailored to children, especially those who enjoy reading in small spurts. The strips are short, and the payoff is big, often eliciting a belly laugh or two. In many, the artwork is fabulous, and strips such as Calvin and Hobbes often contain words that have even adults running for their dictionaries.

My son fell in love with Calvin right away. Here was a boy his age who was intelligent, outgoing, imaginative, strong-willed, and fun. There were entire strips about dinosaurs and space rangers. Calvin could go back in time or shrink himself to the size of a bug. He owned a fierce, talking tiger and built amazing snowmen…. We bought the entire collection.

Kids’ comic books can be more difficult to find, however. When Kenzie was four or five years old, he decided he wanted more than comic strips. He wanted to start reading comic books, but he didn’t want the usual ones – the scary, gory, blatantly sexual comics with storylines obviously written for adults. He wanted kid comics, but all we could find at the bookstores and local comic shops were Scooby Doo and The Simpsons (we’re big Simpsons fans around here). It seemed, at the time, no one was making comics for kids.

When he exhausted those, we turned to eBay. There, we discovered Spidey Super Stories. These were a collaboration between Marvel and The Electric Company in the mid-1970s. They’re adventurous stories that are less scary than the usual Spidey comics (and “Easy Reader says, ‘This comic book is easy to read!’”). Lots of fun (and very dated!), these have been some of his all-time favorite comics.

Harvey comics have also become an old standby. Casper, Richie Rich, and all the others have a lot to offer – years and years of silly, sweet stories – and they’re usually good for a laugh or two. They also offer the perfect opportunity to discuss truth in advertising. Almost every issue shows a picture of a happy, smiling family of Sea-Monkeys. The mother Sea-Monkey even appears to be wearing makeup. Must have been waterproof.

We also collected The Jetsons, Disney comics, and (strangely enough) Alf. All of these can be found on eBay from time to time (often in huge lots). On lucky days, we might find a few in the used section of our local comic shop.
And for a while, these satisfied him, but eventually, he wanted more. Where to turn? We visited a giant comic shop in Austin and discovered that there were actually comics being made for kids – very cool comics, in fact. Comics of better quality than most others on the shelves around them.

Our favorite is Mike Kunkel’s Herobear and the Kid. After his grandfather dies, a spunky boy named Tyler moves into his grandfather’s old house with his family. He’s the odd-kid-out at school, and he doesn’t hit it off with the bullies in his new class. (This comic doesn’t paint a rosy picture of school life.) However, his grandfather left him something: a small, stuffed bear and a broken pocket watch. But this isn’t just any old bear.... The drawings are simply amazing (we finally bought a Herobear poster that now hangs on our dining room wall), and the dialogue is perfect. We recommend buying the book; it’s nice to have several comics all bound together.

Others that we love:

Li’l Red Stitch is a beautiful, imaginitive story set in Texas about a girl, her grandmother and Comanche Spirit.

Awesome Man follows a young boy who wakes up one morning as his favorite superhero, Awesome Man. The illustrations are bright and quite cute, and the amount of dialogue is perfect for those who are just beginning to read and might be a little overwhelmed by too many words on the page. A very cool comic.

Zoom’s Academy for the Super Gifted is like a cuter version of X-Men. Much cuter. Summer’s father is a bigwig at this school for superheroes, and everyone expects her to follow in his footsteps. But Summer doesn’t have any super powers... or does she?

Amelia Rules! follows Amelia, a girl whose parents have recently divorced. She and her group of friends are slightly strange, often goofy, but always very realistic. There’s even a superhero club. Lots of fun!

Growing Up Enchanted is a series that explores the life of a young girl with magical powers in the land of Anywhere. Filled with knights, dragons, trolls, etc.

Patrick the Wolf Boy is a great way to introduce a young kid to comics. Simple, cute, and not overly wordy, Patrick the Wolf Boy is always fun.

Gus Beezer is a short series of comics published by Marvel starring Gus, a comics loving kid. There are issues about Wolverine, The Hulk and Spiderman, and in each, Gus’s imagination is superb. What would it be like to be The Hulk’s neighbor? What if your little sister were a potential X-Man? A great read for adults, too.

Recently, Marvel, DC and others have taken up the kids’ market, again, and it’s no longer so difficult to find comics for the under-teen crowd. There are kid versions of Teen Titans, The Fantastic Four, etc., mostly because of the popularity of superhero movies and cartoons. They’re not the best quality, but for a kid who likes superheroes, they’re a dream come true.

And don’t worry too much about the condition of the comics you find. When shopping on eBay, you can find great comics cheap, simply because they’ve been read. Buy an armful, and get your child a comic box (available at comic stores). They’re easier to store that way. If you do have a child who likes to keep things neat and organized, pick up some plastic covers and cardboard backings. But who cares if the kids keep them in mint condition? Comics were meant to be read.

Of course, more and more books are being written in a comic-like style. In addition to the many graphic novels being published, the Horrible History, Horrible Science, and Horrible Geography series (all highly recommended) contain comics, and many other books use comic-like characters in the margins where they act as guides.

Larry Gonick’s work is not to be missed. His books, A Cartoon History of the Universe (Volumes I, II and III) and A Cartoon History of the United States, have been read again and again not only by Kenzie, but also by his father and me. They’re endlessly entertaining, and because they start at the beginning, they help to underscore the relationships between various events in history. He has also published several other books, all called The Cartoon Guide to ________. They include such topics as the environment, the computer, statistics, genetics, chemistry, physics, and sex. I’m sure that, fairly soon, at least a few of the guides will find places on our shelves. For more of Larry Gonick’s work, check out MUSE magazine from Carus Books, the publishers of Cricket Magazine, among others. His whimsical cartoons appear on almost every page.

With their engaging storylines and short bursts of text, can comics help children learn to read? Certainly, if a child is interested enough. But what else can they do?

Inspire! How many children, after falling in love with Superman or Spiderman, have tried their hands at drawing comics of their own? Ask a group of artists or graphic designers what first inspired them to create, and a number will cite an interest in comics. Many colleges offer classes in comics, most often called sequential art, and a few have designed programs devoted to it.

So, dive in! Search out the comics that most interest your child (or you!) and enjoy!

Looking for More?

Where do you turn when your child wants to go beyond simply reading comics? A good place to start would be Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, published most recently by Perennial Currents Press. In Understanding Comics, McCloud explores the history and importance of the genre, focusing on the components that make up the modern comic. Reinventing Comics concentrates on the comics industry and the future of the art form. Both books are written as comics, making them immensely enjoyable to read. They also don’t assume the reader has a broad understanding of comics, so they’re perfect for those with a newfound interest (but are invaluable to the more experienced comics lover, as well). Good follow-ups to Scott McCloud’s work are Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling.

In addition, there are countless books on drawing and inking comics, though many find non-sequential art books even more helpful. There are books on self-publishing, making a living as a comic artist, creating storylines, writing for comics, and every other aspect of the comics industry.


Shana and her family live in central Texas. She enjoys writing poetry, folksinging, and spending long days with her son. She is the publisher and editor of Live Free Learn Free.


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