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UBC Reports | Vol. 46 | No. 15 | October 05, 2000

Scholar scans the comic side

Assoc. Prof. Bonny Norton finds there's more to Archie than meets the eye

by Bruce Mason staff writer

"You're wasting your time with that trash," every kid with a comic book has been told. So almost everyone is intrigued by Bonny Norton's research, including national media such as CBC's As It Happens and Newsworld, major newspapers and radio stations from Edmonton to Montreal. The associate professor in the Dept. of Language and Literacy Education is studying why kids read comics and why parents and teachers should care. Not just any comic, but Archie comics. One million copies are sold every month, 30 per cent in Canada -- the highest per capita readership internationally. "Media ask how and why I got involved and what my colleagues at the university think," she says. "I reply that Archie comics open a window on contemporary pre-teen identity, gender, literacy practices and popular culture."

Norton conducted a 1998/99 study among 55 Grade 5, 6 and 7 students in a Vancouver elementary school. The group comprised 27 females and 28 males; 34 were Archie readers and 25 had a first language other than English.

"They remarked that adults seldom show such interest in their reading and they were consistently excited about sharing ideas and responses," she says.

Perhaps the most important finding was that diverse responses tended to cross gender lines. Girls and boys applauded strong female characters, but there was an overriding sense from both sexes that female strength can compromise the pursuit of romance and happiness.

Another interesting finding -- Archie comics help children who have diffculty with English to become more involved.

"Kids are passionate about comics. They read them for fun, for the humour and safety of the Archie world and out of curiosity about their future," Norton reports. "Many parents and teachers are ambivalent, but children quickly learn the differences between `good' and `less worthy' texts."

She questions if adults are too dismissive and quick to equate fun with trivia. Because children engage with Archie creatively and distinguish between fantasy and reality, the comics may actually encourage critical thinking.

"Increasingly, young people need to be taught to assess, understand, interpret, synthesize and critique information and evaluate popular culture that is so central to their lives," says Norton.

"There is an urgent need to research the possibilities and limitations of incorporating popular culture in the classroom," she adds. "Our concern is to create a critical literacy curriculum with opportunities to explore popular culture in ways that respect boys' and girls' opinions and pleasures, while simultaneously challenging them to deconstruct their multiple and sometimes conflicting investments in it."

Norton continues her research while fielding calls from media and other groups.

In the meantime, she says, after four generations, the appeal of Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica and all the Riverdale High School gang is undiminished.

The Archie Web site has 13 million hits a month. Betty remains most popular among girls, who see her as a role model who values friendship. Jughead is still tops among boys, who identify with the fact "he eats too much but doesn't get fat and he does weird stuff."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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