Over the past week there has been a lot of buzz about The Disney Corporation's buyout of Marvel Entertainment. The public outcry is that Disney will take over the Marvel characters, forcing unlikely pairing such as Goofy as Iron Man's right hand man or Minnie Mouse as the new Mary Jane Watson (it could never happen, Minnie doesn't have the flowing red locks for the job).
What people need to remember, however, is that three short years ago, Disney acquired a little company called Pixar, and fear rose up throughout the land that Disney would wave its magic wand and Pixar would never be the same.
We were wrong. Pixar continued to work under genius John Lasseter and create animated films in the same vein as their previous hits (Finding Nemo (2003), for one,) if not even steps above. Consider WALL-E (2008), a commentary on the greed of human kind and the possibility of its redemption, complete with gorgeously hideous textures and intense attention to detail (and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature); or Pixar's latest creation, Up, a heart wrenching tale of life and death, as well as the choices we make and how they effect others, complete with adult wit and childlike wonder. Disney not only didn't stifle Pixar's creative engines, but enhanced them by recognizing the potential that Pixar held and by providing almost limitless resources for Pixar to grow on that potential alone.
Consider, then, the positive opportunities that the Disney/Marvel deal can present. Eleven years ago, Marvel was a company that was going down the drain. The problem was that kids were no longer interested in comic books or reading, and in turn, trading cards (Marvel's other big endeavor). Television took over in the late 1980s and even further in the 90s, and children became accustomed to moving images without the "hassle" of having to read words. Why read when the character can speak for his/herself?
Why is lack of interest in comic books an issue, you say? Before I go into the point of my ramblings, let me share with you a story about myself in order to better illustrate my meaning:
I remember, as a little girl, waking up every Sunday morning and running into the kitchen, where my dad would be seated with his coffee (black, with the distinct aroma of burnt dirt) and the morning paper (on lucky days, it would be both the Newsday AND the Daily News). To me, there was always something special about the Sunday edition. The hugeness of it, teeming with information and colorful pamphlets, made me hope that someday I could read the whole Sunday edition and be as smart as my Daddy. I would sit next to my father and watch as he would flip the pages, stopping every now and again on something that would catch his eye. Sometimes, he would pass me the sales adverts, and although I had no idea of what a good deal was, I would take in all the pretty pictures.
My favorite part of the experience, however, is when Pops would finally get to the Funnies section. Pushing the rest of the paper into the far corner of the table, Dad would make room for me to scoot in next to him (and, unfortunately, closer to the burnt dirt). When the ritual first began, I was young enough that I did not yet know how to read, so my father would read to me while I studied the pictures. He always pointed to whichever frame he was reading, so that I may follow along. Comics, at this point, not only included funny non-sequitors and witty snippets of life, but included strips such as Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie, and Dick Tracy, complete with continuing story lines, bigger words, and more complex content. I was introduced to story telling in ways that books were unable to reach- small bursts to keep my interest of multiple subjects, as well as the anticipation associated with having to wait a week for the continuation of the story.
Slowly, my father started to ask me to read with him, starting out with certain words he knew I could handle and graduating into full frames and finally strips. Dad always made me feel like I was a part of the reading experience with him- like no matter how much or how little I actually read aloud, we were a team, reading together. I felt smart, accomplished and grown up; excited to practice my reading and to get a glimpse of the fun and exciting pictures that went with it. I became a quick reading enthusiast, craving more of the fantasy world that stories brought to me, learning to create my own comic strip pictures in my mind while reading the words on the pages in front of me.
While I know that I do not owe my reading skills wholly to the Sunday comic strips, I have a deep appreciation for what my weekly experience with them did for me- starting up my thirst for the written word.
Overall, kids are no longer interested in the written word. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions to this generalization, but the facts are out there. The literacy rate of America as a whole has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. 14% of Americans have "Below Basic" literacy skills, meaning no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's population clock at 12:00PM E.T September 7, 2009, there are 307,384,108 people currently in the United States. This means that 43,033,755 people in the United States at present moment can barely make it through basic and necessary reading throughout the day. Explains a lot, really, as to a downgrade in our society, as we become more and more obsessed with our television sets and fake "realities" and less interested in expanding our knowledge horizons. As of 2003, 11 million people in the United States were considered non-literate in English. Of that figure, only 4 million were due to language barriers. The remaining 7 million were not able to answer simple test questions.
Disney is a big component to this equation, what with their Hannah Montana's and Kim Possible's. Instead of encouraging kids to practice their school work, these shows focus on fantastical situations for the young characters. Unfortunately, this will continue to be a trend for Disney, as entertainment sells over education.
However, the real interest is in the combination of Pixar and Marvel. Word on the street is that Pixar is already looking to produce Marvel's Ant Man movie. The question here is- how could Pixar create an action hero movie while still sticking to its overall past theme of morality and "close-to-home" relate-able storylines? This balance could be the driving factor behind the success of said collaborations. Pixar has always brought an adult voice into their features, however subtle, through slightly advanced story lines and pieces of humor that, while sailing over younger viewers heads, hit home with parents who are tired of having to sit through the same old cartoon fluff. This is where the genius lies- an action hero movie that can speak to both the young and the slightly older (as well as those who wish to stay young forever), and create a new rage in animation popularity.
How does this link back to literacy? If the popularity of animated films about action heroes is back on the rise, so will the interest in all products related to said characters. New releases in comic books may hit big with older kids, (ages 10 plus), and the trickle down effect will occur, because everyone remembers how much we wanted to be like our "cool" older siblings.
Now, I'm not saying that comic books are intense reading that will teach kids words every word from "aberration" to "zealot", but I think back to how those silly snippets from the Sunday newspaper piqued my interest in reading- apply that to full comic books and perhaps we have something to work with.
It certainly would not be an overall fix to illiteracy in America, but it could be a small step in the right direction.