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Literate? Sure! : Comic Book Artists Carry the Word to Non-Readers Across America

January 22, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

A guy named Mike got frightened by a comic book recently. Strolling through the Lakewood Center mall, he came across a man in a unicorn suit giving them away.

The books told of a movie star summoned to a strange planet called Rock Star where the citizens insist on eating rocks rather than reading books. With the aid of her friend, Frank the Unicorn, she ultimately succeeds in wooing the planet's former king back from an extended fishing trip to help persuade the people to change their ways.

But Mike didn't get that far into the story. Instead, he took one look at the words printed on the page and bolted in fear.

"I have a hard time reading," explained the 50-year-old Lakewood resident who declined to give his last name out of embarrassment at his illiteracy. "I want to, but it just doesn't feel like it sticks in my mind."

Ironically, Mike is exactly the kind of person the unicorn and his cohorts were there to see.

Comics Have Reached the Famous

Members of Cartoonists Across America, they travel the country promoting literacy through comic books. "A lot of famous people got started reading through comics," said Phil Yeh, the group's co-founder.

A free-lance artist based in Long Beach, Yeh has been writing and publishing his own cartoon and comic books for years. But he never sold many, he said, and one day concluded that the problem wasn't in his books but in the fact that about 20% of Americans can't read, and many of those who can, don't want to.

"We would have book signings and no one would show up," said Yeh, 32. "So we decided that maybe we ought to be working toward solving the literacy problem rather than trying to sell our books."

The plan that he and fellow cartoonist Leigh Rubin of Palmdale came up with attempts to do both. And it has been endorsed by pro-literacy organizations ranging from the Library of Congress to the California State Library, whose literacy specialist calls Yeh a "salesman for reading" and the appearance of Cartoonists Across America "a momentous occasion."

Composed of a core group of about five Southern California cartoonists, most of whom support themselves through other jobs, the organization has visited more than 32 states in the year since its founding.

Their modus operandi is simple: traveling by van and staying in cheap motels, they appear wherever they can find a sponsor to purchase blocks of books that the cartoonists then distribute publicly in conjunction with local literacy volunteers. Mostly they appear at malls, conventions, schools and libraries. Once they even appeared at Chicago's Cook County Jail.

The appearances promote literacy in several ways, according to Yeh.

First, the books--all written and illustrated by group members and published by Yeh--are based on themes having to do with reading. Some, for instance, describe an exotic planet called Bibliomania on which good-guy librarians zap bad-guy non-readers with powerful Imagination Blasters causing them to read.

Birds at the South Pole

Others deal with the adventures of two bird brothers named Penguin and Pencilguin who work at their father Dadguin's exotic ice cream shop at the South Pole, but dream of becoming famous artists and writers.

In addition, Yeh said, the group promotes literacy during its appearances by encouraging non-readers--adults as well as children--to take classes, and readers to become tutors. "Our goal is to generate a movement in this country" that will "make reading cool," Yeh said.

To that end, the group spent more than two months last year touring the country. And next month, according to Yeh, he and his fellow cartoonists plan to begin a literacy tour throughout California.

So far, he said, travel and publishing expenses have not been met by book sales. In fact, he said, the group is about $20,000 in debt from its endeavors.

But Yeh believes that if more people begin reading, more will ultimately buy his comic books. And in recent months, his efforts have been applauded in some pretty important quarters.

John Cole, director of The Center for The Book, a department of the Library of Congress in Washington, recently issued a letter characterizing Cartoonists Across America as an "important . . . ally" in the nation's fight for literacy.

'Impressed With Efforts'

And a similar letter by California State Librarian Gary Strong urges Californians to "join me in working to support the Cartoonists in our united fight" against illiteracy.

"We've been quite impressed with their efforts," said Al Bennett, a literacy specialist for the California State Library who works with Strong. "I personally learned how to read by reading comic books; humor can be very valuable. (Phil Yeh) is a salesman for reading who is very effective in his technique."

Not everyone, however, shares Bennett's and Yeh's love of comic books.

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