"It's a way to get out of reality," eighth-grader Chase Gillis said exuberantly as he outlined a comic book character on a sheet torn from a sketch pad at the Reedsburg Public Library on Thursday afternoon.
"Just words bother me. When you've got the picture in front of you, too, it's more realistic."
Gillis was one of 10 middle school-aged children to participate in the Reedsburg Public Library's first "After School is Cool: Comic Convention" - or "Comic Con" - to be held each Thursday in December.
He would be one of the first to admit that he is far more likely to read a comic book than a traditional chapter book.
"It adds more action," Gillis said. "You can see things happen."
That love of reading comics is one of the reasons North Freedom teenager Jordyn Schara started Comics 4 Change (C4C), her third major community service project, last summer. Her goal is to better engage elementary and middle-school students who struggle with reading, hoping to improve their literacy levels in high school and reducing dropout rates.
"It helps bridge the gap between picture books and chapter books," Schara said. "I was reading statistics about youth literacy and what kids read, and comic books work well with kids who aren't ready or don't want to pick up chapter books yet."
The library's Comic Con program, which runs from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. each week and is for fifth- to eighth-grade students, allows participants to take home 10 comic books after each session. The books are returned and exchanged for 10 new titles the following week.
A collector on the East Coast donated most of Schara's new assortment of "a few hundred" comic books, which range from DC and Marvel classics to newer titles such as "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." Schara, in turn, donated the titles to the program in honor of Make a Difference Day and Make Your Mark Week.
On Thursday, the newer titles were flying off the table at a rapid pace. Many students grabbed the first interesting comic book they saw and ran back to their table; others, like eighth-grader Ty Strombom-Tess, browsed through the comics carefully, choosing the 10 he would pore over for the following week.
"I love comics," Strombom-Tess said. "I heard there was going to be a comic book arrangement and I had to come check it out."
In addition to the comic books, youth services librarian Kris Houtler arranged for Reedsburg Area High School art students Estephany Gonzalez and Brennan Thundercloud to take part, teaching the group how to draw different types of comic-book characters by hand each week.
"Choosing comic books only takes a few minutes," Houtler said. "I wanted to figure out ways to expand on that and keep the kids engaged for the hour. Next week we'll probably show some animé (highly stylized Japanese cartoons) and switch it up a bit."
Houtler said she has seen the power of comics in helping kids read firsthand while watching the Comic Corner of the Reedsburg library.
"There is a definite place for comics in literature," Houtler said. "Some kids need the illustrations. All kids are different kinds of learners, and comic books encourage kids to read on their own. You should see how they're drawn to the Comic Corner."