[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Miriam Ruff, and it is the fourth installment in what will be a series of interviews about the different approaches people take to discover and learn new topics. It was lightly edited for clarity.]
MR: Welcome to AceReader; we’re glad to have you here.
MR: Let’s start from the beginning, with your reading experiences. Did your parents read to you when you were little? Did you have a regular “storytime?”
ML: I was often read to growing up. The books I remember best are Jeremy Rabbit and The Oddkins. The art always stood out.
MR: At what age did you start reading by yourself?
ML: I wasn’t quick to pick up text-only books on my own. Stuff like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Garfield were what I spent most of my time with early on. I remember diving into Sherlock Holmes and Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams around age 11 or 12. Those did the trick but eventually led back to the visual content that I loved in comics.
MR: I’m sensing a trend here; those are very visual stories. After you started reading to learn, did you receive any other kind of reading instruction? Visual instruction perhaps?
ML: I had to see a reading comprehension specialist in middle school. Stuff I didn’t want to read just wouldn’t stick in my brain. I was taught to slow down and take in groups of phrases. It helped but I still tend not to read things I don’t want to read.
MR: I think that’s a bit true for all of us. What were your favorite things to read as a child? Has that changed much since you’ve grown up?
ML: Those comic strips I mentioned earlier are still super appealing. They’re as smart as they are fun, and the art, though relatively unrefined, is remarkably memorable. There are Far Side comics that I remember as though they’re family pictures. My adoration for comics certainly stems from that early reading.
MR: Did you go to the library regularly? If so, what was your experience like there and with books in general?
ML: I didn’t go to the library regularly. I’d occasionally accompany my mother on her visits, and my father would always want to load up on 18th century naval fiction (Aubrey-Maturin, usually) or far-future sci-fi. When I do read novels, my tastes are heavily informed by his.
MR: So what drew you to the highly visual comic books and graphic novels? Which were/are your favorites, and why?
ML: I gravitated towards comic books because the universes they define are brought to life in such beautiful ways by genuinely remarkable artists who are absolutely storytellers in their own right. Colors define tone and varying papers lend texture. Those universes are also made to live through stories told by masters in the form of prose, or graphic icons, or poetry, or song (or even musical notation).
The comics I love most tend to run in long arcs but only sometimes in popular universes, like Marvel’s 616 (the primary continuity for most Marvel stories). The story from 616 officially began in 1983, but it’s driven by the context and characters whose tales have been told for almost 60 years. My very favorite from that universe, or from any other even, are the stories of Adam Warlock and his frequent foe (and occasional companion) Thanos; especially when written by Jim Starlin. The Marvel cosmic storylines involve gods, and physical embodiments of the different aspects of the universe like Death, Infinity, Eternity, and even Justice as manifest in the form of the glowing, golden Living Tribunal.
60 years’ worth of cannon is a lot to catch up on! So, I also look forward to stories, new and old, produced mainly by independent publishers, which involve shorter-lived universes which don’t demand any prerequisite knowledge. Recent favorites include stuff like “Descender,” “Black Science,” “Huck,” and “Chrononaughts” from Image Comics; “Black Hammer” and “Aliens: Dead Orbit” (written AND drawn by James Stokoe) from Dark Horse; and the groundbreaking graphic novels from Jean “Moebius” Giraud like “World of Edena” and “The Incal” (his oft-ripped off collaboration with Alejandro Jodorowski).
“Sandman” by Neil Gaman, and “Planetary” and “Transmetropolitan” by Warren Ellis published by DC’s Vertigo imprint are also astonishing tales.
These stories are my favorites because of the way the stories are told through weird, scary, philosophical, and often outlandish ways. Most of them are made truly real through original artistic design languages, and even those which are quite similar to traditional comic art always have stylistic elements that set them apart. Most importantly, they are all unique.
MR: What do you think of adapting the print books into movies? Is it just another experience, or do you feel it loses something in translation?
ML: To me, the books and the movies are separate entities; separate stories. The characters I’ve been imagining are rarely like the ones I see on the screen and the weirder elements of the stories are often softened for mass consumption.
Often, the push for commercial viability and mass-market appeal tear away at so much substance of the written story that it’s not entirely recognizable as being the same thing. Also, the novels I’ve read which have been translated to film can be disappointing simply because [they’re not] the universe I’d built in my mind’s eye.
I feel that when we read a thing we take a sort of ownership of it. My interpretations are often different than others who read the same stuff. That’s incredibly appealing to me, but to see someone else’s interpretation vary enormously from mine when it’s put to film can be extremely off putting.
MR: You have a three-year-old daughter – when did you start language and reading instruction with her, and how have you approached it?
ML: We’ve read to our daughter since before she could sit up on her own. We began dragging a finger across the page to focus on each word as soon as she began paying enough attention. Now that she’s old enough to recognize numbers and letters, we count or sound them out so that she’ll pick up more language and begin to associate it with meaning.
MR: Do you think comics and graphic stories are a good way to introduce children to the joys of reading?
ML: Not only do I think comics are a great way to introduce children to reading, I think it’s an inevitable way to do so! Since board books are essentially comic books in a different format – what with limited text and great huge imagery, transitioning to more sophisticated graphic material becomes a very comfortable step towards complexity.
Color plays such a huge role in learning that maintaining a child’s connection to vivid artwork can reinforce other meaningful elements of their growth too. Parents who engage in reading their children books with a graphic-heavy format, and who distinguish color characteristics and significances at the same time as they read the written content, can reinforce both intellectual and creative connections. There’s remarkable value in focusing on growth in both of those areas.
MR: Do you take your daughter to the library for storytime or to look at books? Why or why not?
ML: Our storytime takes place at home every night. We’ve rarely gone to the library together because my daughter tends to look forward to the same stories over and over again.
Now that she’s beginning to explore and understand more of the world around her, trips to the library are something to look forward to! Maybe I’ll draft an update when we start making a habit of it.
MR: Do you use any technological program to improve your reading? Do you already, or do you think you will, use such programs with your daughter?
ML: Usually, contact lenses and a nice light are as far as I go tech-wise. I might use an iPad if I’m unable to haul a bunch of comics on a business trip or on leisure outside the country. (If you are going to be attentive to the value of their collectibility, you quickly realize that it’s hard to travel with lots of comics.)
Right now, my daughter only reads on paper. Digital devices have too frequent a tendency to find bodies of water (i.e. toilets) to entrust to a fumble-fingered toddler.
For learning, I’d absolutely lean on reading applications for my daughter. I’d probably have been a more engaged reader if today’s technology was available to me in my youth.
MR: What’s the most important thing you think parents should do in terms of teaching their children to read, and why is that so?
ML: They should, and soon enough I will, teach her to find books that matter to her. Books that will drive her to want to read more, and to read more regularly. Books that inspire new ideas or shed new light or make her uncomfortable in ways she’d not known would bother her.
To expand our minds through the adventure of reading or to focus our intent on the acquisition of knowledge are of equal value in my mind. Literature, regardless of its format, should be memorable for the quality of the information it holds and also for its ability to truly disturb the way we think.
Still, she’s three years old. For now we’ll just attend to sounding out words and identifying letters. Baby steps before Sophocles, right?
I also see reading with my daughter as an extension of our relationship and the togetherness and emotion that entails. It’s one thing to teach her to read or to count or to know the names of characters and elements of a setting. It’s another thing entirely to hold her on my lap and to engage with her in spending safe, quiet time in the stillness of a book.
One day we’ll read to acquire knowledge, learning details about the creatures she loves so much in The Field Guide to North American Fresh and Saltwater Fishes, but for now I’m perfectly pleased to delight in their colors and to imagine new unwritten stories with each one as a character.
If you would like to ask Mr. Lang any questions, please do so in the comments section below.