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Volume 25, Number 4
July/August 2009

“Manga Is My Life”

Opportunities (and opportunities missed) for literacy development


AEP 2010 Award - EditorialAs the founder of the Comic Book Project—a literacy initiative for underserved youths—I am often asked if I read comic books as a child. Because the answer is no, I am consistently amazed by children who discover comic books as literature—and equally dismayed by educators who ban such books, chosen by children, from the classroom.

The idea behind the Comic Book Project is simple: children plan, write, design, and produce original comic books, then publish and distribute their work for other children to use as learning and motivational tools. Since its inception in 2001, the project has grown to encompass over 50,000 youths across the country, mostly in high-poverty urban schools and neighborhoods. More than just a fun and motivational project for children, the project is intended to model how creative thinking can bolster academic success. The thousands of comics created by youth participants in the Comic Book Project are a testament to the power of the medium for building conventional literacy skills, including spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, character development, narrative flow, editing, revising, presenting, and publishing—all of the skills that we aim to instill in young readers and writers.

I saw this firsthand in observing a group of students in the afterschool comic book club at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Manhattan over a period of several years. During school, many of these students—African American and Latino teenagers—struggled academically and socially. But after school, when the grade books were closed and the textbooks tossed back into lockers, these same students—so disengaged from the life of the classroom—became highly motivated readers and writers.

Whimsical Heroes

If you imagine these students inventing new versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, or any other American superhero, prepare for a surprise. The adolescents who convened every Thursday afternoon to create comics were fully entrenched in manga: Japanese comic books. They consumed volume after volume of their favorite series such as Bleach and D.Gray-Man, which were originally published in Japanese and then translated into English.

The students’ own comic book creations reflected their devotion to manga—characters with saucer-shaped eyes and flowing hair, storylines with whimsical twists and turns, and an aesthetic focused on the whimsical rather than super-powerful. Many of the students gave themselves Japanese nicknames and began to teach themselves some Japanese words and phrases. Some imagined themselves visiting Tokyo, interspersed among thousands of people at a doujinshi convention for amateur comic book creators just like them. One student’s statement captured the group’s collective commitment to this uniquely Japanese art and literature: “Manga is my life.”

The club’s meetings on Thursday afternoons became a haven of creative and social development for the participating teenagers. They eagerly opened their sketchbooks and drafted Japanese-inspired designs, while developing and sharing story lines related to their personal and cultural identities.

The weekly club meetings were also a sturdy buttress for literacy development. In planning and designing their comics, the students amassed an extraordinary amount of writing. They explored narrative elements of tone and atmosphere with their word choices. They delved into the complexities of punctuation and sentence structure in considering the voice of a character and how the reader would perceive the text. They shared their work with each other, establishing a peer-review process in order to get their manga ready for the annual school publication. The comics went through several revisions, each leading to higher-quality writing and artistic design. When the comics were complete, many of the works were on par with the professional manga with which the students were so enamored. And in publishing and distributing their original manga, these students gained recognition as writers and artists in New York City and beyond. They were inducted, as literacy expert Lucy Calkins says, as insiders into the world of authorship.

The participants in this club acted as a cohort—a collective of like-minded artists and writers wholeheartedly dedicated to the craft of manga. Yet they were also individuals, each with a unique style and approach. Samantha, for example, used her sketchbook as a personal diary, transforming her everyday experiences into manga stories. One of those stories features Samantha at an anime convention where she falls in love with a boy in “cosplay”—short for “costume play,” or dress-up. The boy turns out to be a girl; the comical story ends with Samantha, shamelessly crushed, saying: “So . . . I’ve learned that bishounen at anime cons may, in fact, not even be a shounen . . . ” Translation: an attractive male teenager at an anime convention may not even be an immature young boy.

Another student, Reggie, designed a comic book featuring African American samurai warriors. In contrast to the random violence that marked Reggie’s life, his characters systematized violent confrontations through scheduled battles. Following the code of the samurai, they fought for justice and respect with a combination of personal convictions and sharp swords.

While Reggie was prolific, Treasure struggled to create manga, unsure of her abilities. Over time, and with the support of other club members, however, Treasure produced some of the club’s most impressive comics. Her growth as a comic book creator led to a scholarship for a weeklong workshop this summer at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.
And Keith, a boy who struggled with abuse and homelessness, developed a comic book character named the Hunter, who, in Keith’s words, represented “my dark persona, or at least how my persona would’ve been if I decided to go about solving my problems the angry and negative way.”

Of course, these adolescents did not create and publish manga on their own. A number of key adults at the afterschool program supported their efforts. The program director, staff, and volunteers encouraged the academic and artistic growth of the students, but they also became surrogate guardians, social workers, and guidance counselors when other adults in the students’ lives were absent.

The most influential adult for the teenagers was the club instructor, Phil DeJean. An art teacher during school hours, Phil was a comic book fanatic. His broad range of knowledge of everything comics—including manga—helped him connect to the youths who felt so isolated from their teachers and peers at school. Phil helped the students move from replications of popular cartoon characters to well-crafted original manga. He differentiated his instruction to meet the needs of every student—some needed more support with their writing skills, others with the drawing of hands and feet, still others with the self-confidence necessary for creating original work. The students held Phil in high regard, and their commitment to the comic book club—and, in turn, reading and writing—reached new heights as the students strove to produce manga at the highest possible level.

Why Only in Afterschool

It is not a coincidence that the comic book club at Martin Luther King Jr. High School was an afterschool program. School-based programs like this, managed by nonprofit organizations, are finding new ways to connect with youth through media, technology, and the arts. These activities are not merely fun and engaging; they are authentic pathways to literacy and learning. The participants in this particular club read an enormous number of books and created an equally voluminous amount of original writing. Moreover, their works published in print and online inspired scores of other students across the United States and around the world. A young girl from Florida, for example, downloaded one of the club publications from the Comic Book Project Web site and sent this e-mail:

Thank you for the amazing manga! I have some questions for the autors [sic]: Is the fox-girl character always both forms or does sometimes she just act like a girl and then become the fox. How did she get her powers? Was it magic or was she born with them? Do her powers ever get her into trouble? How did her little cat get her powers? Why do they eat so much soup? Do you have any advice for me on how to draw manga like you did? Can you PLEASE send me a copy with autograph of the artists! 

It is a shame that there weren’t more opportunities for the comic book club members, so excited about words and language, to pursue their passions in English, social studies, and other school classes. It is unfortunate that they had to wait for one afternoon each week to explore and celebrate the world of authorship. There could have been countless opportunities for students to connect a whimsical fairy from, say, the popular manga Oh My Goddess! to Ariel in The Tempest. They could have explored manga as a construct of Japanese culture and its evolution from World War II to today. The learning opportunities are infinite, bound only by the willingness of an educator to think with an open mind.

This particular club opened my eyes to an important lesson: In our pursuit of basic skill reinforcement and heightened academic performance, we educators ought to look at the opportunities right in front of us before we lose another generation of students ready and eager to learn. If this means putting aside the textbook for a Japanese-style comic book, why not take that leap?

Michael Bitz is the founder of the Comic Book Project and cofounder of the Youth Music Exchange. He has served on the faculties at Teachers College, Columbia University; and Ramapo College. He is the author of Manga High: Literacy, Identity, and Coming of Age in an Urban High School (Harvard Education Press, 2009).

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    The Comic Book Project:

    Center for Cartoon Studies:

    National Association of Comics Art Educators: