When I first met Josh Elder, I knew almost instantly that he was a kindred spirit. We crossed paths at a comic convention where Josh was promoting his work on Mail Order Ninja, his charming "manga" for TokyoPop. He was also working on a project that resonated with me called Reading With Pictures. RWP works to create educational materials and curriculum for young readers, encouraging them to read through the use of comic books.

(I've written in the past about how instrumental comic books were in turning me into a voracious reader, so I share the belief that they can be a tremendously useful tool in promoting literacy.)

With RWP's second Kickstarter campaign in full swing, Josh took some time to talk to me about the program, the dramatic event that inspired him to start it, and the challenges it faces today:

Geek To Me: How long has the Reading With Pictures program been around?

Josh Elder: We officially incorporated in 2009, though I’d been involved in other, similar organizations like Kids Love Comics for several years prior to that.

G2M: What gave you the idea to start it?

JE: I traveled all around the country doing workshops in schools and libraries and I kept encountering the same problem over and over. Teachers wanted to do more with comics, but they needed research to justify their use, they needed training to be taught how to use them, and they needed material that was aligned to the Common Core Standards. Someone really needed to do something about that, and no one seemed to be volunteering. So I did.

The final catalyst for launching the organization was a little more… dramatic. I was on the J Train heading to JFK Airport after a comic show in NYC when a brawl broke out. One of the instigators completely lost his mind and started blindly lashing out at everyone around him, including a group of young children. No one was even trying to stop him, so I volunteered. He worked me over pretty good, but I was able to restrain until we reached the next stop where New York’s Finest swarmed onto the train to arrest him and his comrades in violence. Everyone was okay – I actually got the worst of it – but the kids were positively traumatized. No matter what their parents said or did, they just wouldn’t stop crying.

So I pulled out all my unsold comics from the show and gave each of the kids a copy. Then it was like someone flipped the happy switch. The tears were gone, replaced by broad, thousand-watt smiles. They were safe, and they were happy. It was probably the single most amazing moment of my life, and I’ve been dedicated 100 percent to this cause ever since. 

G2M: That is a dramatic turn of events! Okay, outside of raising the funds, what has been the greatest challenge in running the program?

JE: Bureaucracy. The endless, often contradictory rules that govern how teachers can teach is the single greatest challenge that all educational reform efforts have to face. Getting funded is hard. Making revolutionary educational products is hard. Overcoming the sclerotic rot that chokes the lifeblood of innovation, that’s positively Sisyphean. And yet we keep trying to push the boulder up the hill because we know what’s waiting for us on the other side.

G2M: How does the current edition of the RWP book differ from the previous one?

JE: In true Spinal Tap style, we turned everything in the first RWP Anthology up to 11 for The Graphic Textbook. We’re not only working with some of the best cartoonists in the business (Fred Van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey, Janet Lee, Roger Langridge and more), we’re also working with the educational experts who literally wrote the book on using comics in the classroom. Oh, and the whole thing is tied to a major research study being overseen by the Learning Sciences Department at Northwestern University. This is what educators have been waiting for, and now we just need to get enough funding on Kickstarter to make it a reality.

With the support of just 1,500 people on Kickstarter today, we can change the lives of millions tomorrow.

G2M: How long have you been a comic book reader?

JE: Since pretty much as long as I can remember. Comics were instrumental in not only teaching me to read, but teaching me to love reading. The visual nature of the medium allowed me to engage with material far above my grade level from the moment I started kindergarten. In fact, I was taking college credit courses while still in middle school. I went on to attend Northwestern on National Merit Scholarship and now I get to write, publish and distribute comics for a living. In other words, hooked on comics worked for me, and I believe they can do the same for students everywhere.

G2M: What advice would you give to young readers who would like to create their own comics?

JE: First, get a book called Adventures in Cartooning by James Sturm. It’s a fun read, and it gives you countless practical tips on how tell stories with pictures. Once you’ve finished that, you can graduate to more advanced studies with Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden.  They’ll teach you literally everything you need to know to produce and even publish your own comics.

Of course if you just want to draw something and share it with your friends, then all you need is a pencil, some paper and a lot of imagination!

You can support the Reading With Pictures Program by making a contribution on Kickstarter today!