07/23/2011 02:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2011

Comic-Con: Some Comics Offer an Invitation to Learn

Anyone who loves comics will be keeping an eye peeled for news coming out of Comic-Con 2011, happening this weekend in San Diego. This comic-oriented occasion also presents the opportunity to remind parents -- and teachers -- that not all comics are fictional plots about superheroes.

Bentley Boyd, a Harvard graduate is the creator behind an extensive line of comic books that are mostly about American history. Boyd points out that he grew up reading and writing comics and watching TV -- "and I went Ivy League."

As any educational expert will tell you, the first step for a child on the road to gaining knowledge is to become curious, to become interested.

Boyd's series of comics was originally titled Comics with Content, now known as Chester Comix. He fell into this use of his skills somewhat by accident.

In high school in Brookings, South Dakota he wrote for his school newspaper and also contributed editorial cartoons. At Harvard, his editorial cartoons appeared in the Harvard Crimson and were also syndicated throughout New England, earning him the first Al Capp Satire Award given at Harvard. He graduated in 1990 with a joint degree in history and literature.

By 1992 he was living in Newport News, Virginia and contributing editorial cartoons to The Daily Press. While in this position, The Daily Press approached him to prepare a set of cartoons to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. Boyd created Chester, the Chesapeake Crab, to carry an Earth Day message. As he observed adults and young people enjoying the cartoons, he realized that Chester could teach. (Both Boyd's parents were teachers so the importance of clarity and accessibility in encouraging learning was very much a part of his background.)

Chester the Crab Takes On New Role
The newspaper editors also noted the success the Chester comic strip was enjoying, and they soon made it a weekly feature. When the state of Virginia released new Standards of Learning, Boyd's editor asked him to study the requirements so that Chester could also fulfill the state-mandated goals. To help Boyd accomplish this, The Daily Press assembled a committee of teachers to review the cartoons. That way Boyd was certain to create fun and interesting stories that also met the state's educational guidelines.

From there, Chester Comix has grown. Most of the comic books (and they are comic books, not graphic novels) are written about subjects concerning American history, but Boyd has also created some to explain the economy and others to introduce other stories from history -- he has titles about early Greece and Rome as well as ancient Africa. The American history-oriented subjects range from the First Americans, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World Wars I and II as well as books dedicated to transportation and one explaining "government of the people by the people and for the people."

The comics themselves are four-color and slim 8.5 x 11 booklets with just 24 pages. However, Boyd packs a lot of information into each book, partly by using a chapter format. For example, in Go West Young Crab!, four subjects are covered: "The Oregon Trail," "The Gold Rush Hour," the "Transcontinental Rails," and "Battle at Little Big Horn."

One tale about life on the Great Plains when America was young begins with two modern day boys running into each other after school. One boy explains to the other: "Mom kicked me off my Wii. She said I needed 'fresh air.'" The kids then go on to explore the life of the Plains Indians, and in another chapter how the settlers made it across the Plains.

While a comic does not provide much opportunity for an in-depth back story, the story-with-illustrations can make other information abundantly clear: For example, the boys learn why the settlers chose to load what they did onto their wagon trains, and why the settlers walked beside the wagons instead of riding inside -- the type of details that would resonate with young people of any generation, as the details are about the practical, not the mundane.

The brevity of a comic means that students would need additional material to round out a complete story, the benefit is that suddenly these stories are accessible to the eager learners as well as the reluctant one.

Boyd now lives in Williamsburg, Virginia and is a frequent guest speaker in class rooms, opening doors to history as well as to cartoon-style storytelling for children.

For more information on Chester Comix click here.

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I'll be visiting Comic-Con and will report back next week.