Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Teaming Up for Literacy: Spider-Man and The Electric Company

Right now I’m working on some more material related to the idea of multimodal literacy sponsorship. I’m particularly interested in the multiple ways that comics have sponsored multimodal literacy throughout their history. From the critical literacy that the EC horror titles sponsored in the 1950s through their continual re-examinations of contemporary society, to the educational comics that were published in response and that sponsored a more conventional literacy that aligned with the contemporary educational practices and social values. From the religious comics published by Oral Roberts in the 1950s and Spire in the 1970s and the ways multimodal literacy was used to promote Christianity, to the rise of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and the creation of a specific multimodal discourse community centered around the Marvel narrative continuity. I’m interested in the ways in which literacy sponsorship happens outside schools and the complex webs that these multiple sponsors of multimodal literacies create. But I’m also interested in the ways that multimodal literacy sponsorship happens in conjunction with educational programs. Hence my interest in the 1970s partnership between the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and Marvel Comics that brought Spider-Man to The Electric Company and The Electric Company to Spidey Super Stories.

The Electric Company, a show produced by the non-profit Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) aimed at teaching reading through the use of television, debuted in 1971. The target audience for the show was poor readers, 7-10 years old, who had, as The Electric Company Final Report put it, “already tasted failure in school reading programs and for whom television could provide a non-threatening and familiar alternative to the classroom experience” (6). In other words, the aim was to use a multimodal medium (i.e. one in which viewers not only made meaning through the linguistic mode, but also through the audio, visual, gestural, and spatial modes) in order to promote linguistic (or print) literacy which students would then presumably be able to transfer to the books they would encounter in school and other settings.

As the show was being aired, researchers connected with CTW pushed for more inclusion of opportunities for sustained reading so that viewers would engage with print that was longer than a single sentence and that was embedded in a narrative. One of the ways that the producers decided to introduce such sequences was through the use of Spider-Man, a character with whom viewers would be familiar. The idea was that in these live-action narrative sequences, Spider-Man would never speak. Rather, his speeches would appear in word balloons above his head, drawing on a familiar convention from comic books in order to promote reading as a way for viewers to follow the simple narratives.

Beginning with Spider-Man’s debut on The Electric Company in 1974, a partnership ensued between Marvel Comics and CTW based around short self-contained narratives that appeared on both the television show and in Spidey Super Stories, a comic introduced by Marvel in the fall of 1974. According to The Electric Company Final Report, the use of Spider-Man in The Electric Company

provided considerable motivation to read and became extremely popular with viewers. Capitalizing on the popularity of these segments, a special Electric Company “Spidey” comic was designed for newsstand distribution as a way of providing additional reading matter of a controlled kind. This comic looked much like any other, but had carefully placed print, short messages, controlled vocabulary and was designed to encourage the poor reader to read rather than to merely rely on pictures. (66)

Though the two groups had different reasons for this cooperation, the partnership clearly benefitted both CTW and Marvel Comics as they reached out to their target audience of poor readers, 7-10 years of age.

In other words, both Marvel and CTW, can be seen as sponsors of literacy, a concept I take from Deborah Brandt. In her article entitled “Sponsors of Literacy,” Brandt defines literacy sponsors in this way: “Sponsors, as I have come to think of them, are any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy – and gain advantage by it in some way” (166). Though their reasons differ (as one is a non-profit educational group and the other is a for-profit comic book publisher), both Marvel and CTW sponsor literacy and their cross-media partnership is an excellent example of the ways in which content can be linked across media even at the earliest stages of literacy development.

So, what I’m doing right now is examining this partnership, the ways in which the two groups used their partnership to sponsor both print and multimodal literacies for their target audience, and the benefits each derived from such sponsorship of literacy. I’m having a lot of fun hanging out with Easy Reader, J. Arthur Crank, and Spider-Man, and thinking through how this complex web of multimodal literacy sponsorship happened.

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