Comic book superheroes save reading, storytelling

WASHINGTON — A new generation of comic book superheroes is waging battle against illiteracy and boredom.

But these heroes aren’t wearing capes and tights – they’re wielding pens and paper and fighting to instill a love of reading in people young and old.

Tina Henry, a comic arts aficionado and first-time comic book writer, hopes to start the revolution this weekend at Smudge! Expo, a comic arts expo held Saturday at Artisphere in Arlington, Va.

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Smudge! comic arts expo will be held Saturday at Artisphere. (Courtesy Smudge!)

The event will feature panel discussions with comic book creators such as Ben Hatke, interactive workshops where kids and their parents can learn to make their own stories and an opportunity to chat with other comic art junkies.

“D.C. has such a rich cartooning history,” says illustrator and Smudge! Expo co- organizer Matt Dembicki.

“Before people felt they had to go to New York to get their big break … but now you can work from anywhere, so people tend to stay where they are.”

For the uninitiated, the comic book world can appear vast and overwhelming. Firstly, there is the difference between a comic book – typically a single issue – and a graphic novel – a collection of comics or a story told in long form.

And then there are thematic differences. Some comics are about superheroes, others are about mythology; still others tackle social issues. In other words, they can be about anything.

Acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman once observed that the comic book is “a medium that people mistake as a genre.” Dembicki goes one step further and says that the medium is highly underrated if only because it is so misunderstood.

“Visuals help you comprehend things better,” he says, adding that comics are sometimes used to teach English as a second language.

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Cartoonist Matt Dembicki is one of the brains behind award-winning comics, including "Trickster" and "District Comics." (Courtesy Matt Dembicki)

“Even as adults, you appreciate it on a different level. You gravitate more toward adult content, and you appreciate the art behind it,” he says.

“It’s one of those types of mediums you can really enjoy for your entire life.”

Henry, a self-described “maker of all things,” is using comics in a slightly different capacity: to introduce reading to one of her twin daughters.

While one is a born bookworm, the other prefers cartoons and anime. Henry didn’t know what to do, so she picked up her old comics and offered them to her daughter. She started with “Archie” and then eventually the 8-year-old graduated to more sophisticated stories like “Zita the Spacegirl” by Hatke.

She quickly picked up her mother’s comic book fixation, and became a discerning reader herself.

“She was reading ‘Wonderwoman’ and asked me why is it that Wonderwoman has to fight crime in a bathing suit,” Henry says. “I thought ‘You’re right!'”

Henry was surprised that her daughters’ school – Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest – has a robust comics section in its library. And she has noticed that some classic literature such as “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Wizard of Oz” can be found in an illustrated form.

“I don’t think parents should be afraid of comics,” she says. “They have good stories to tell. They have important stories to tell.”

Henry is working on her first comic book with Dembicki as illustrator. She says it’s about a family of squid, and only the women can time travel. They are forced to choose between jumping between past and present, and staying with their families.

“It’s really about making choices,” she says. “And there is an epic battle in the end.”

Smudge! Expo will be held Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. at Artisphere. For ticket information, click here.

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