Communicating to Non-Literate Audiences with Comics

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This blog was originally posted on February 2nd, 2015.

In the United States comics generally appeal to those who already know how to read and write, but in other contexts sequences of images with relatable characters and stories convey important information to the illiterate about how to avoid danger or pursue opportunities.

For example, Mudita Tiwari and Deepti KC of India’s Institute for Financial Management and Research are distributing comic books about financial literacy in the slum of Dharavi in Mumbai to discourage women from relying on vulnerable hiding places in their homes to squirrel away cash. As a co-author of Understanding Rhetoric, a comic textbook, I was particularly interested to see their financial literacy tools for women, which emphasized graphic media for storytelling and sequential art as a means of communication.

As they explained to the annual conference of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, before adopting this approach they found that the lack of information about banking alternatives was compounded by apathy toward generic information that “didn’t click.”   To provide meaningful context, they developed an interactive story-telling approach using comic books that starred two major characters: Radha, who is always struggling with financial adversities, and Saraswati, her sensible money-managing friend.  Researchers actually used real-life stories to compose the narrative.

Financial Literacy for Women Entrepeneurs

The literacy problem in India is serious, because the country has 287 million illiterate adults, or 37 percent of all illiterate adults globally (UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report).  However, many countries have large populations of illiterate adults, and in the United States, public health efforts have enlisted comic books for decades (Schneider, “Quantifying and Visualizing the History of Public Health Comics”).  Even in the supposedly conservative 1950s, Planned Parenthood used comics to get out the word about family planning.

Selene Biffi was asked to write a public health comic book for Afghanistan by the United Nations.  The experience inspired her to found a nonprofit organization that makes graphically appealing storytelling-oriented print materials for the developing world, Plain Ink.  According to their website, rather than donate books manufactured in the West, their organization supports “the use of local skills in the countries where we work” and strives to “find the best authors, illustrators, printers and distributors to collaborate with” to “create employment and contribute to local economic and social development.”  A story on the organization in Fast Company includes some sample pages, which show children making a lid for a well and a sign warning of contaminated water.  These panels need to communicate information efficiently, simply, and without ambiguity.

Composition instructors can create interesting audience-oriented assignments for students that ask them to create comics for audiences lacking fundamental literacy skills, perhaps as part of a larger research project exploring a topic, such as ways to ameliorate disease or the effects of natural disasters.  As an example, faculty could show recent pamphlets with visual instructions about containing the Ebola epidemic.

Explaining complex phenomena with simple illustrations can also provide the provocation of a grand challenge to classes exploring different communication modalities.  For example, how could global warming be explained to non-literate people or discoveries about the benefits of breast feeding using only pictures?  The peer-reviewed research may use relatively advanced scientific models, but the issues you assign should be ones that affect rich and poor alike.

About the Author
Elizabeth Losh is a Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego. Elizabeth is collaborating with Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, are collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.