Comics have typically been shunned by educators and parents who want to promote literacy among children. After all, kids should be reading "real" books, which are more complex and require more effort to understand than colorful, picture-filled comic books. 

But according to University of Illinois library scientist Carol L. Tilley, this critical view of comics is unnecessary--and even harmful. Tilley says that comics are just as sophisticated as other forms of literature, and children benefit from reading them at least as much as they do from reading other types of books.

"A lot of the criticism of comics and comic books come from people who think that kids are just looking at the pictures and not putting them together with the words," Tilley said. "Some kids, yes. But you could easily make some of the same criticisms of picture books – that kids are just looking at pictures, and not at the words."

Although they've long embraced picture books as appropriate children's literature, many adults – even teachers and librarians who willingly add comics to their collections – are too quick to dismiss the suitability of comics as texts for young readers, Tilley added.

Critics wrongly suggest that reading comics is actually a simplified version of reading that doesn't approach the complexity of "real" books, with their dense columns of words and relative lack of pictures. But Tilley argues that reading any work successfully, including comics, requires more than just assimilating text.

"If reading is to lead to any meaningful knowledge or comprehension, readers must approach a text with an understanding of the relevant social, linguistic and cultural conventions," she said. "And if you really consider how the pictures and words work together in consonance to tell a story, you can make the case that comics are just as complex as any other kind of literature."

Tilley said some of the condescension toward comics as a medium may come from the jejune connotations that the name itself evokes."The term 'comic' is somewhat pejorative and tends to denote the child-like and ephemeral, and it brings to mind the Sunday funnies that you used to line your birdcage," she said. Even in the early 1900s, there were teachers who raised concerns about children reading comics – that their content wasn't appropriate content for a children, and that it wasn't real literature.

And when the first comic books were published as omnibus collections of popular published comic strips in the mid-1930s, "the same concerns sprang up again from adults. They claimed the texts weren't good texts because they used slang, there were misspellings, they used colloquialisms and that the pictures were of questionable merit."

Despite their marginalization, Tilley said the distinct comic book aesthetic – frames, thought and speech bubbles, motion lines, to name a few – has been co-opted by children's books, creating a hybrid format.

"There has been an increase in the number of comic book-type elements in books for younger children," Tilley said. "There's also a greater appreciation among both teachers and librarians for what comics and comic books can bring to the classroom. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English sponsors an instructional Web site called 'Read, Write, Think,' which has a lot of comics-related material. Instructional units like these would have been much more rare 10 years ago."

Given this information, Tilley suggests that critics should stop tugging on Superman's cape and start giving him and his superhero friends their due.