Behind the glitz, glamour and garishness of San Diego Comic-Con’s entertainment spectacular is a lesser-known side that explores serious education issues for preschoolers through the teen years.
In panel after panel, experts discussed how teachers can use comic books and graphic novels to improve reading skills and keep kids interested in reading for pleasure.
Panelists said comics are successfully used to teach science and math, bring history to life, and generally engage students in their learning.
Although hardly comic books, the “Harry Potter” series of books, by J.K. Rowling, motivated millions of elementary age children to read voraciously, some would say even obsessively.
Even video games are now being used in the classroom to teach lessons and provide life skills that otherwise, taught in the traditional manner, can put many kids to sleep.
Other Comic-Con panels provided tutorials on story writing, character development, art and graphic design.
Ancillary issues like bullying, stereotyping, accepting diversity, embracing differences, depression, suicide and teenage angst were also addressed in many sessions, by experts who offered coping skills and advice for maintaining a positive self-image in the face of adversity on the playground and in the classroom.
Happily, many of these panels were well-attended.
Yes, Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” panel certainly attracted many (like, thousands) more people, and it was great raunchy fun. But life lessons for kids? No.
In fact, seeing the under-10 crowd in the “Family Guy” panel watch inappropriate clips and hear scenes read by the actors that were hilarious but not exactly G-rated, diminished the frivolity.
For better kid-appropriate options, panels like “Raising Future Fans: Geeky Parents and Children Speak Out” discussed ways parents can integrate geekiness into family fun and help children be proud of their unique interests.
One of my favorite panels, “The Geek Shall Inherit: A Look at the Evolution of Geek Culture,” presented eight experts, four of whom were psychologists and all self-proclaimed geeks.
Panelists discussed the effect the Internet has had on society — specifically, technology’s role in facilitating positive connections and, conversely, in permitting cyber-attackers to lash out viciously, secure in their anonymity.
“Technology changed the way we connect with other people,” said clinical psychologist Ali Mattu, who claimed the lack of eye contact is responsible for much of the name-calling and threats online.
Psychologist Janina Scarlet agreed and said bullying often stems from not seeing others as individuals.
“Make eye contact,” said Scarlet, whose website is Superhero-Therapy.com. That reminds you “that the other person is a human being and has maybe gone through a lot.”
“It just takes one person to stand up against bullying” to turn a crowd around, said “Star Trek” fan Mattu, who writes about the psychology of science fiction at brainknowsbetter.com.
To children and parents of bullied kids, he said, “Remember that you have allies everywhere. People will help you through those horrible moments.”
Proof is the outpouring of geek love at Comic-Con, which shows our most vulnerable young children and teens that they do not stand alone.
Bullying is not just for kids.
Panelist and writer Jenna Busch said she regularly received rape and death threats, “because I write a lot about gaming.”
Women in the gaming industry struggled mightily in the early years with venomous, often sadistic, misogynistic online attacks that brutally harassed and terrified victims.
It doesn’t help that the portrayal of women in comic books and video games is less than realistic.
With body images that make even Barbie look fat, the female figures on comic book covers and video game screens often denigrate women, turning them into sex objects to appeal to male fantasies.
“There’s a difference between sexy and sexualized,” Busch said, criticizing the sexual objectification of women. When the media show more than one body type, “it makes a huge difference for girls.”
Busch said the climate is slowly changing, as she now hears regularly from parents who say they want their sons to see strong women in comics and games.
Busch is the founder and editor-in-chief of Legion
ofLeia.com, whose mission is to raise awareness that “women love sci-fi, fantasy and genre entertainment … and our contributions to it are out of this world.”
Comic books are slowly changing the way they portray not only women, panelists said.
It’s a diverse world out there, and many children and teens with differences who feel marginalized, bullied or harassed are finding refuge in comic books and some media.
African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT, the disabled, those with learning challenges, the non-jocks — these are among the demographic groups being represented in the media in increasing numbers, in more positive ways.
Children feel empowered when they can identify with strong characters in books and film who look like them and have similar interests and traits.
And when the larger community is exposed repeatedly to images and representations of characters who become positive symbols for diversity, then tolerance is strengthened, harassment reduced, understanding of the harm bullying can cause grows, and awareness of and appreciation for individual differences rises.
For those who take cosplay and fantasy to the extreme (cosplay, for those who don’t know, like I didn’t until Comic-Con, is the art or practice of wearing costumes to portray characters from fiction), there are signs to watch out for.
It’s good to have a passion, but anything can become an obsession, said Busch.
The key, said Scarlet, is moderation — and connectedness.
As long as kids and adults are connecting to other people, real people and not just online, then it’s OK, she said. But it’s not healthy if the fantasy becomes an escape from reality and from other people (think Sandy Hook Elementary or the Colorado movie theater shootings).
Parents need to engage with their kids to discern if the passion is an escape from human interaction or a pathway to connect with others who have similar interests.
If they are used to connect, Scarlet is a big fan of cosplay and games, saying they are good for kids. She said levels of the hormone oxytocin rise when people interact pleasurably with others through game-playing.
“There’s science behind it,” she said. “When you’re playing with somebody, you’re actually extending your life. So doctor’s orders: Go play.”
Validating the many Comic-Con panelists and experts who claim comic books and graphic novels are useful to engage reluctant readers at a young age and sustain an interest in reading as they grow older, a teacher in a Q&A session said just that.
The teacher spoke passionately about how she successfully uses comics in the classroom to teach civil rights and other history lessons, citing the many benefits of comics and graphic novels as learning tools.
Adults, too, can learn from science fiction.
I’ve learned about 18th-century England, Scotland and Europe, and the early days before the American revolution, from the fabulous “Outlander” books by Diana Gabaldon (which have been made into a cinematically gorgeous television series on STARZ).
For its time-travel component, “Outlander” is science fiction, but the books are also classified as romance, adventure and historical fiction.
Fans love the books for the historical accuracy Gabaldon brings to the stories — with spot-on descriptions of the clothing, food, architecture, geography, politics, language and customs of the times. That, coupled with some of the most exciting characters in modern fiction, is why “Outlander” has such a devoted following.
Young adult fiction
In the session titled “What’s Hot in Young Adult Fiction,” eight panelists discussed what influenced their writing. For many, it was being bullied in their teens.
The result of these negative experiences in high school led to the creation of strong characters in their books who stand up to harassment.
The discussion about writing styles led to a conversation about being either a “plotter” or a “pantser.” Plotters outline their stories meticulously from start to finish, and pantsers write by the seat of their pants, not knowing where the story will take them.
Most panelists admitted to being pantsers, saying too much plotting can limit the freedom to write plot twists as they come to mind. One dedicated pantser said she felt constrained by her teachers and professors, who insisted upon specific approaches to writing.
But a combination of the two styles, a hybrid approach, appealed to most panelists, who agreed that the process one uses as an author can vary from book to book, day to day even.
They encouraged aspiring writers to be flexible and write in a variety of ways.
Try to avoid writing what you think the audience wants, they said. Focusing too much on appealing to the marketplace can kill a book.
But readers are very sophisticated and will suspend disbelief to a point (magic and time travel can work just fine). So within the universe that’s been created, the story has to hold together.
Panelists offered one final bit of advice: Even if another author has your basic idea, write your story anyway. Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean you can’t do the same thing, because yours will be different — and hopefully better.
The role of sci-fi in science
In the panel “Who’s the Muse? Science or Science Fiction,” scientists and industry executives talked about the interplay between science and science fiction, and which inspires which.
“We are living in science fiction times,” said Harry Kloor, scientist, double Ph.D. and founder of Jupiter 9 Productions, which provides entertainment and educational content promoting the fields of space and science.
Kloor cited the growth in robotics, artificial intelligence, drones and the Internet of everything, as proof.
Other panelists mentioned the communicators on “Star Trek” and how those have morphed into modern-day cellphones. “What’s next?” one asked. “Tricorders?”
Panelist Taryn O’Neill, actress and science enthusiast, said it was George Lucas and Steven Spielberg movies that brought science and science fiction into the popular culture.
Steven Snyder, Ph.D. and chief executive officer of San Diego’s Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, said two people in his youth, one a real scientist and one from science fiction, hooked him on science: Galileo and Spock. It was his first glimpse of Jupiter through a telescope and the character Mr. Spock on “Star Trek” that inspired Snyder to pursue a career in science.
For Steven Hart, vice-president of ViaSat, it was science fiction author Isaac Asimov and the “Foundation” series of books that captivated his imagination and set him on his scientific career path.
Comic-Con in its early days was a convention where one went to buy comic books. Today, it’s a gigantic multi-media experience and an international entertainment extravaganza.
But beyond Batman, Spiderman, Superman, X-Men and Avengers, there’s a rich and varied educational universe at Comic-Con. And what’s happening in that alternate world is worth exploring — and just as worthy of excitement.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.