Our friend Marifran O’Neil died yesterday morning.
A teacher in Brooklyn NY, Maryland, Illinois and her native St. Louis Missouri, Marifran was the wife of writer / editor and ComicMix columnist Denny O’Neil, whose column normally runs in this space at this time.
Born February 10, 1940, Marifran and Denny were childhood sweethearts who became separated by time and distance. They reconnected in the 1990s and were married in 2009; a true story of love and romance. I know first-hand; Denny and Marifran got back together when Denny and I were sharing an office at DC Comics at the time. Upon reuniting with Marifran, Denny immediately morphed into a man completely and hopelessly in love.
She had that impact not only on Denny but on all of us. A charming person and a wonderful conversationalist, I looked forward to seeing her at various comics conventions and social gatherings, including Martha Thomases’ legendary Hanukkah donut party, the annual salon of New York comics people. Marifran’s presence made each meeting an event.
Marifran had two daughters, Meg and Beth, who live and work in Portland and Nevada respectively.
Trying to avoid an overused meme is impossible: Marifran truly was a special and unique person, and we will miss her greatly.
That was the headline above a New York Times story that ran in the paper’s Art section…
Hold on! Before we go any further, let’s think about this. The Times headline implies that at least a substantial number of teachers don’t like comics. Not true, at least not in my experience. Marifran, who taught for 50 years, used comics I brought home as classroom prizes in both a Catholic school in Brooklyn and a public school here in Nyack. She got no negative feedback from either parents or school officials. And the kids seemed to like being rewarded in this way. Comics were a small but welcome addition to her workplaces.
Then why did the august gray lady of American journalism imply that comics and lesson plans might be a bad mix? Maybe because once upon a time, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 years ago, comics did have a bum rep among certain citizens, probably including teachers, especially those who read editorials, heeded clergy and other authority figures, including a New York City psychiatrist. And, while we’re on the subject of authority figures, these citizens thought that if United States congressmen said something was a menace to our youth and even convened hearings to investigate, well, by golly, it was a menace, whatever it was.
As far as I can tell, comic books’ days as scapegoats and quarries of witch hunts were pretty much done by the late 50s and early 60s, when Julius Schwartz refashioned a lot of long dormant superheroes and Stan Lee changed editorial attitudes and gave comics an aura of hipness and, dare we utter it, of sophistication. But sometimes old convictions refuse to die, especially if those holding the convictions have no reason to question them. So, yeah, I’m sure there still exist folk who believe comic books to be venues for wickedness, but there can’t be many of them.
Which brings us back to the Times piece. It concerns a new publishing venture, Toon Graphics, and its founder, Francoise Moulay. Ms Moulay is offering comics to schools as tools to help kids learn. She believes that comics can help teach reading because youngsters, unlike adults, because they are used to extract meaning from information. “That’s how they make sense of the world,” Ms Moulay told the Times reporter. “Comics are good diagrams for how to extract meaning from print.”
That makes comics a natural extension of what psychologists say is something infants do before very early in life, make crude, preverbal narratives – stories – to deal with the continual barrage of information their senses are providing. They begin to assemble cause-and-effect scenarios and soon all that… stuff isn’t so scary because they’ve begun to understand it. Then they grow up and acquire language and… well, it can go a lot of ways from there. Maybe they write King Lear. Or go to work for the New York Times. Or contribute to ComicMix.