WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — Bold colors and thick black lines, speech bubbles and variations of strange exclamations like "KA-POW!" and "THOOM!," are what is generally thought to make up the glossy pages of a comic book — a type of literature loved by many, but similarly misunderstood by others.
Since the first comic book was printed in 1933, the industry has been an endearing one to the fans who worship it so intensely.
It has historically been a stereotype to think of the people who are into comic books as the nerds and geeks of society, as it has been shown throughout decades of television and movies. But that's not so true anymore, as "geek culture rises," according to former comic book distributor John Shableski, of Williamsport, who helped coordinate the first Wildcat Comic Con last year.
So these so-called nerds are taking over; what does that mean?
It means that Comic Cons are popping up all over America, with huge attendance numbers. Publishers Weekly reported in June, "Regional shows from Seattle to Denver have seen marked growth in 2013, with hordes of attendees sometimes overwhelming expectations."
Wildcat Comic Con can count itself among those statistics. It seems likely that they will follow the national trend of topping their preceding attendance, which was about 600 last year. They started with 10 vendors last year. This year, they're up to 38.
The man who will serve as the keynote speaker at Wildcat Comic Con this year has taken comic books to a whole new level. Michael Bitz is the creator of The Comic Book Project, a project dedicated to engaging young folks "in the process of planning, writing, designing and publishing original comic books."
The website, comicbookproject.org, goes on to explain, "CBP engages children in a creative process leading to academic reinforcement, social awareness, and character development, then publishes and distributes their work for other children to use as learning and motivational tools."
So, in layman's terms, Bitz uses comic books to teach kids that there's more creativity and imagination to be explored - more than can be read in some dusty old textbook from 1985.
"We want to promote independent thinking and creative problem solving those are the skills that young people will need in the 21st century," Bitz said.
Interestingly enough, he didn't have some romantic story about growing up with comic books and turning his childhood dream into a reality. Rather, it's something he discovered nearly 12 years ago while teaching children in a New York City classroom as an adult. He realized that comic books could be used as a valuable teaching tool.
He's essentially taking this product that has long not been thought to be an actual piece of literature and is integrating it into childrens' lives in order to help them learn and grow through creativity. He explained that many traditional classrooms tend to squash creativity. However, slowly but surely, thanks to people like Bitz, comic book culture is becoming less misunderstood and more revered, and is being used more and more as a teaching tool.
He now has plans to travel to Nigeria shortly after Wildcat Comic Con to present his project at the University of Nigeria. His hope is for the project to become an international model for literacy development. This will mark the first time he's done serious international travel to promote the program.
"I went for my shots," he laughed. "I don't know what's going to happen there but I'm really excited about it. I will be giving the keynote speech at the Reading Association of Nigeria conference," he said.
His project is gaining much attention, as it has been highlighted in many major publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Very modestly, he explained that the exposure is simply advancing their cause, which is getting the idea of The Comic Book Project out there to other educators.
"It's a lifelong pursuit. I don't think it's something that I will ever stop doing. It's wonderful to see it grow and be a part of what people do," he said.
He recalled a powerful story from last year.
"When we were doing one of our New York City work shops, a teacher was there who was there at the start of The Comic Book Project. She told us a story about a student who got involved with the project and turned into something he really loved to do," Bitz said.
Now, he said, that student has graduated from graduate school studying animation and is now working for an animation studio.
"That's what can happen when someone is really invested in what they like," he said.
He's especially excited to expose Wildcat Comic Con attendees to his project.
"A comic con is such a great experience," he said, "It brings so many people together from so many different disciplines."
"It is very evident that he (Bitz) has a real passion for engaging students in being creative in their own way," said Jean M. Bremigen, the operations and public services manager at Pennsylvania College of Technology's Madigan Library. She helped coordinate Michael's trip to Williamsport.
She noted that, as a part of Bitz's presentation at the comic con, he plans to interact live with other countries to share comic book projects that children have created.
"I believe Dr. Bitz will motivate others through his life experiences and connect Williamsport with the world," she said.
As a last bit of advice for those still leery of what comic books have to offer, Bitz says that there's definitely something out there for everybody, and that there is a wide range of comics, not just the general superhero comics that many are used to.
"There are so many different things out there, (like) graphic novels. Just do more digging and look into more indie comics; open your mind to the world of comics that are out there right now. You will find something that really speaks to you," he said.
Bitz will give the opening speech at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Wildcat Comic Con. Attendees will have a chance to talk to him personally at the Comic Book Project table in the vendors area during the day.
Information from: Williamsport Sun-Gazette, http://www.sungazette.com