Waxing Philosophical: Current Opinions on Comics as Literature, Part 1

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by Michael Kupperman

Just this past week, the late and great Stan Lee passed away, one of the founders of the US comic book industry. He was and forever will be a cultural icon so many in the industry hold dear, and his passing reverberated across comics media and into the mainstream media. Unfortunately, the news reached the ears of Bill Maher, who responded to the passing of Stan Lee by criticizing comic books in a blog post. In it he says, “twenty years or so ago, something happened – adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” He got a ton of backlash for the things he said, but his comments point back to a long-time struggle of comic artists and the industry: the struggle to be taken seriously. Something I had hoped was starting to seriously fizzle out, but apparently not.

I think most of us know the kinds of criticisms and comments the comics industry and comic artists have gotten over the decades as comics rose in popularity. I would highly recommend looking into the book, The Ten Cent Plague, if you want a really good in-depth look at the backlash against US comic books during the 40s and 50s. The highlight of that era was obviously the Senate hearings on whether or not comics contributed to juvenile violence and the publishing of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, where Wertham cherry-picked data to make it look like comics were the primary cause of delinquency. It effectively brought comics to their knees and destroyed the reputation and the industry of US comics for decades. Obviously this wasn’t the only reason for the failing of the comic industry during that time, but I don’t exactly have the space in this post to go much deeper. If you want to know more, I wrote an article on the destruction of the US romance comics genre that has a lot of great info.

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However, in the recent couple decades, comics have made a resurgence not just in the wider book industry, but in the public consciousness. I think this is largely due to generational changes, the creation of comics that managed to, so-call, “bridge the gap” between mainstream media and comics, and the introduction of other media influenced by comics like movies and TV shows. Now, we’re seeing headlines pointing to comic sales being at an all-time high, growth in the children’s comic market, and new adaptations being made every season. But, I think there is still this disconnect between mainstream readers and comic fans, between what some would consider high-brow literature and comics or graphic novels. So what is the conversation like nowadays surrounding comics and their rise in popularity? How does the mainstream news and popular opinion view comics as an art-form or as literature? Do they even view it as literature?

“I enjoy them, but never consider them having “read something” if that makes sense. It’s more entertainment to me than reading literature, because I feel like I get more thought-provoking content out of literature. Graphic novels, even though some are amazing (here’s looking at you east of west), just don’t make me think as deeply as regular novels do.” – A comment on r/books on a thread talking about the general consensus on graphic novels and comics.

This comment came out of a reddit thread discussing the general consensus around comics and graphic novels. It’s here that we can see that graphic novels to some still don’t merit the title of literature. They are thought of as less than, as less thought provoking than prose, and as more of an easy entertainment source rather than something that to many is so much more. This idea that comics don’t make someone think as deeply as prose novels may come from the view that comics are a purely escapist medium. In his book This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature author Rocco Versaci notes that, “By and large, ‘escapism’ is associated with the most ‘pop’ of our popular culture: the entertainment that is designed for mass appeal and minimal thinking” (2) And maybe that’s what’s happening here. The association of comic books has generally been sci-fi and superhero stories, tales of the fantastical, that are meant to entertain the masses and children. Escapism has also been frowned on in the lens of what is considered literature, since, as Versaci goes on to say, “Escapist entertainment is all about ‘hiding’ from what really matters—namely, the real world, the people in it, and the important ideas that we should be grappling with there.” (3)

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The above rationalization begins to look like it’s standing on shaky ground when we start going over all of the graphic novels and comics that have begun winning awards outside of their usual circles, and how quickly these more traditional awards are ready to accept comics and graphic novels into their ranks. Maus by Art Spiegelman is the the biggest example of this, having won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, albeit for Special Awards and Citations, but the fact still stands that it won a Pulitzer, one of the highest awards any work of art or fiction can win. Recently, we’ve had the graphic novel Sabrina that has been longlisted for England’s most prestigious literary award, The Man Booker Prize. Usually given to a work of prose fiction, this is the first time that a comic or graphic novel has ever been nominated, which points to a changing climate of comic acceptance among literary circles. But there are people who still see this nomination as out of line, like this comment on the Reddit announcement of Sabrina’s nomination: “I agree in advance that I’m an old fuddy-duddy but I just don’t consider graphic novels to be real books.”

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at comics is that they’re for kids. The thought process being that because pictures are involved, and the subject matter often focuses on superheroes, that their content is dumbed down specifically for a kids audience. The irony here being that kids comics were actually on the decline until recently. By all accounts, Watchmen and the desire to get back to the old glory and gory days of EC Comics set off this gritty and dark wave of comics aimed towards an older audience. It was also fueled by this desire to prove that comics weren’t just for kids that more and more comics coming out focused on more mature stories and material. People who grew up on the Golden Age comics of the 40s and 50s were now making comics of their own, and carving a new niche in the comics world, especially in the underground scene. All of this pushed the kids comic market further and further away until just a few years ago when the market started to explode. So I kind of always laugh at this idea that comics are for kids, because they haven’t been for decades.

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The worse perpetrator of this myth is the mainstream media. Dylan Meconis in his blog post “How Not To Write Comics Criticism” lays out some of the most egregious mistakes journalists make when talking about comics. One of which is the old stand-by headline “Comics Aren’t for Kids Anymore,” apparently used so widely that it got its own abbreviation among comic fans: CAFKA. There’s also the propensity for headlines to include things like “Pow! Bang! Zap!” in a failed effort to seem “hip” with the comics crowd. Pretty much all of the reasons Meconis points to perpetuates the stereotype that comics are for kids and that they can never reach the level of true literature. In criticism of this idea Rocco Versaci point to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which can be seen as a commentary on the “the failures of the dominant high-low culture paradigm by reminding us that the high culture of this century was the pop culture of the last.” (205) What is seen as literature now was most likely seen as pop writing back then, as evidenced by Moore’s inclusion of literary figures in his comic work. Literary figures who were considered the pop/genre fiction of their time.

But perhaps the most prevalent stereotype (and last one I’ll talk about here) is this idea that comics are only good for getting young readers interested in reading, specifically interested in reading prose or “serious” literature. Take this Reddit post from four months ago where a mother is asking if letting her son read comic books would help him get interested in reading “actual books.” The mother equates reading something like Captain Underpants to not really reading, and does suggest getting more comics for her son but only as a way to get him to read “actual books.” However, I would argue that the act of reading comics actually challenges the reader on many different levels, more levels than say a prose book. To follow a comic story, a reader must process not only the text and dialogue, but how the art relates to said text, the construction of time and space through panel construction and gutters, and infer everything the creator left out of the page and story. It’s a reading process that develops a lot of key skills overtime.

So while I think that the opinion of comic books has definitely improved drastically over time, I do think there are still hold-outs and moments where their literary merit is called into question. In Part 2 I want to take a look at literary canon and how the comic industry and fandom has developed its own must-read canon of “literary graphic novels” in response to these stereotypes. I apologize for the long-winded post today. I found as I was writing it, that there wasn’t quite enough space to write everything I wanted to, so I hope my points were clear enough.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~

Part 2 >>>


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One thought on “Waxing Philosophical: Current Opinions on Comics as Literature, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Must-read Monthly (not) Monday (November 2018 ed.) – The Animanga Spellbook

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