The Mighty Thor #274 (published in 1978) became my gateway to a new childhood love - comics. I don't remember precisely how this gem came to me, but I think my mom and grandma snagged a whole bunch of comics at a garage sale one day to bring out to our summer camp on Lake Superior. For a curious and busy little guy like I was, I was sure it was in hope that I could sit and chill for a while, especially in the mornings when they were trying to sleep, or in the evenings when they were wishing I might fall asleep.
This issue sat at the back of the pack for a long time. I preferred Archie and other kid-friendly favorites like Garfield and Family Circus. But the artwork and captions ("Balder the Brave is DEAD") on the front cover always had my attention. Each summer I would return to camp to devour the same comics again and again, but it wasn't until a few summers after it's original discovery that I was finally ready for The Mighty Thor.
A funny thing happens when you pick up a comic series 274 issues into the series, and your brain has to work extra hard to try and figure out what the heck is going on. It was easy to figure out who Thor was, but if you take a look at the cover there were dozens of characters, an alternate universe, a rainbow bridge, and of course all of the connections to Norse mythology. I was hooked.
Day after day, I re-read that same comic. Where there was information I didn't have, or more likely, things I didn't yet quite understand due to my age, I simply made it up. While I wasn't really an artist, I learned to draw Thor. I figured out that if I held the comic up to the window I could trace very well. I spent hours and hours making my own comics.
Outside, on the beach, and in the waters and woods surrounding my camp, I became Thor. I had a red beach towel as my cape, held tight by a clothespin from the line (my grandma used to get so mad because I used so many pins). I had to work extra hard just to be able to first pick up, and then run around with the old sledgehammer my great grandpa kept in the tool shed next to the outhouse. Knowing how heavy sledgehammers are now, I can't believe my skinny little 9-year old self could have even moved it. Maybe I WAS Thor. I organized all my friends to play superhero games. As I think about it now I wonder how all our camp neighbors felt watching the horde of kids running around with beach towels flowing behind them and that one kid carrying a sledgehammer. The visual is hilarious to me now.
Back in town for the fall, winter and spring, I found myself seeking out new comics. I naturally gravitated to the Avengers (as Thor was a key member), and then graduated to more complex titles. While I would never really become a hardcore collector, I certainly had a passion for comics. They were my go-to literature of choice. As I became a bit older, and into my teens, I started to read more books, but I always made time for some comics. At night I would read some of whatever book I was reading, and my "treat" for reading a chapter or two was always that I could fall asleep to reading a comic. Of course, the attention to comics faded over time, until they were all just another childhood memory, stored in a box in my mom's basement.
As I became a teacher, I always rallied against what I perceived to be a professional aversion to comics in the classroom. Teaching grade five and six students suddenly created a new opportunity for the box of comics in the basement. To my surprise, many of my students could have cared less about the comic box I was so eager to share. There were however, a few students who took to them and I bet you could guess who those students were - yep, my struggling readers. While they had some trouble engaging with the text (you would be very much surprised by the vocabulary of comic books), they could engage with the artwork. And, I think it was because they had a teacher who supported their new love, they didn't feel singled out or different. Those students then started to share their favorite comics with their friends and before long I had more and more comic book fans in the classroom. Kids started to bring their own, and parents would bring in their collections or finds from garage sales. The words and vocabulary the students used in class was beginning to connect to similar encounters in their comics ("Hey, I think I saw that same thing in X-Men #whatever"). The students asked to stay in at recess to draw, and thanks to the miracle of Comic Life, they could begin to create their own comics too. And to come full-circle, those struggling readers, supported through additional daily interventions, became readers.
While I know comic books did not turn these students into readers, I think I can better relate to what the conversation about Joyful Literacy is all about. I was Thor, but it was so much more: I read the comic, I drew the pictures, I wrote the captions, I became the character, I improvised character lines, I collaborated with friends, I connected to deeper learning, and I came back for more. Looking back, the most interesting part of all was that I was totally oblivious to the fact my love was even literacy. It was pure joy.
This past Friday, thanks to the help of my wonderful Assistant Principal, Poppy Johnson (@poppyjohnsonedu) I got to relive my childhood love. For one more day, I became Thor. Mjolnir will now forever reside in my office reminding me of the importance of a joyful youth, and the literacy connections made over many summers on the shores of Lake Superior.