It’s alarmingly easy to buy into simplistic and false assumptions! We’re surrounded by them. We’re told daily that certain tasks are simple and straightforward when they’re anything but — constructing a deck, building a home business or wall-mounting a TV to name but three.
Then there’s comic books.
For whatever reason, comic books are characterized as being inherently simple and straightforward. They’re seen as the low hanging fruit of entertainment; popcorn content which is fun to consume, but which has no real nourishment value to it.
Not that graphic novel fans out there required much convincing of this, but there’s actually a lot going for comic books, including ample evidence to suggest they’re not just more complicated than the stereotypes suggest, but actually actively foster stronger verbal, emotional and analytical intelligence.
Processing Visual Information Requires A Ton Of Cerebral Bandwidth
To begin with, there’s the simple fact that comics are inherently visual and our brains happen to be visual processing machines.
Reading a comic book involves interpreting and analyzing a vast amount of visual content. Sure, words take care of the dialog and broad plotting, but it’s the pictures which make a comic book … well … come alive.
Neurologically speaking, comic books invoke a cognitive phenomenon known as the “pictorial superiority effect.” Boiled down to non brain-scientist basics, the vast majority of humans naturally process visual data more comprehensively than verbal information.
Reading a comic book therefore conscripts a part of your brain, which is hard-wired to paying close attention and intensively processing a lot of data.
Comic Books Stimulate Memory Retention
Flowing on from the pictorial superiority effect, comic books have a profound impact on memory. Perhaps counter-intuitively, reading a comic book is likely to activate your long-term memory far more effectively than written or auditory information.
A 2013 University of Oklahoma study explored the impact of graphic novels on memory retention. The study revealed that over 80 percent of people exposed to a graphic novel versus a conventional textbook reported a greater ability to recall the information it conveyed 72 hours later.
By combining words and pictures, comic books are excellent at producing what educational sociologists refer to as a “schema” — information that is enriched and made more relevant by being embedded in an accessible (and often highly compelling!) explanatory context.
Comic Books Foster Adaptability and Flexibility
The idea that intelligence can be measured simply with logic, math and deductive tests are hopelessly outdated. Today, we understand that human “intelligence” is not just one thing.
Human intelligence consists of many different mental capabilities combined in different ways. It’s entirely possible to be brilliant and gifted with some forms of intelligence and average to below average in others. To use a fitness metaphor, you can develop incredibly strong biceps and still have spindly little chicken legs!
There’s a vast amount of disparate information sources into a comic book. To continue the fitness metaphor, then, comic books are the cerebral equivalent of taking a cross-fitness class where you focus on total body fitness.
A comic book reader needs to understand not just the words and not just the visuals, but how these two information sources twist and collide to tell a more nuanced and emotional story. Furthermore, given that comic books are generally serialized, there’s frequently a broader “meta-narrative” to track, understand and analyze while you read.
What you end up with is a storm of (often contradictory and cognitive dissonance invoking) information channels, and it’s your job as the reader to assemble it all into a cohesive storyline. To put it another way, the information in a comic book isn’t merely passively received. It’s carefully analyzed, intellectually assembled and actively processed.
The bottom line is, there’s an eclectic array of mental gymnastics which goes into appreciating everything a comic book is attempting to convey, and that requires some serious mental muscle, creativity and concentration.
Comic Books Usually Portray A Complicated World
Setting aside the complexity of the comic book medium itself, it’s worth taking a step back and considering the storylines and characters comic books are famous for portraying.
To be clear, I’m not talking about old-school Archie and Jug Head comics here (although they do have their place!). I’m looking at the thriving subculture surrounding graphic novels.
While graphic novels encapsulate the enormous diversity of human expression itself, there’s a thread which runs through most of the genre: graphic novels describe complex, equivocal worlds.
These books tend to describe realities where the good guys aren’t entirely good. Similarly, its villains aren’t simply evil. They tend to have motivations, shifting allegiances, even ameliorating circumstances, if you look hard enough.
The worlds these oddly rich characters inhabit aren’t monochromatically moralistic either! These worlds are rendered vividly. Complex societies and ecosystems lead lives which are difficult to simplify or summarize.
In short, comic book worlds are designed to make you ponder. They immerse you in an expansive and changing world. They make you think.
So where does all this justification leave us!
The next time you get some heat for reading a comic book, in addition to telling your critic to mind their own hobknockin’ business, you can legitimately point out that their stodgy old tome of “War and Peace” is only exercising one small fragment of their intellect, whereas your comic book is giving your brain a rigorous, complete workout.
Or you can just ignore them and get back to your comic. That works too.