Comic Books: A Viable Form of Literature?

I’ve been tossing the ideas for this post around in my head for some time. I’ve done my research, know my opinions, have my own connections to it, but I’ve just had difficulty getting this whole argument started. But now, amidst the whirlwind of disputes going on both about and within the comics community, I think it’s high time for me to get off my proverbial writing ass and get this started.

I should note, first and foremost, that some of my motives for writing this are selfish. I work in the comic book industry and I absolutely love it. I also have a BA in Literature. I love to read, write and analyze literature (in case you haven’t noticed – I run a literature blog). I also work in comic books. I by no means think that it’s a “waste” of my “talents,” nor do I believe that comic books are a thorn in the side of literature. It’s as if my degree should be revoked for working with and – God forbid – garnering entertainment from comic books. I don’t appreciate dirty looks from literary “elite” when I tell them what I do for a living.  And – yes – I DO believe that comic books are a viable form of literature. But even if I didn’t work in the industry, I’d still feel that way.

Self-righteous rant aside, the problem I’m addressing is the latter. The issue of whether or not comics can and should be considered literature. Which, of course, brings me to my first order of business: What is literature?

It’s an age old question that often goes unanswered, for fear that whatever might be said could (and most often WILL) be wrong. As mere readers, who are we to say what literature is and is not? Which leads us to the bigger issue at hand: WHO decides what literature is? There appears to be an untouchable canon that can make these decisions and they can only be shared with a select few. Literary eugenics at its finest.

But it’s easy to pass this off as an “us vs. them” issue,  and leave it at that. It’s easy to say “oh the literature ‘canon’ believes that comics aren’t literature,  because they’re the old, antiquated, grandpa-like big bad guys and we have to fight them to get any sort of recognition.” That’s a throwaway argument. The truth of the matter is, it’s dissent within the comics industry that presents a barrier to any sort of claim that comics are, in their purest form, literature.

One cannot discuss comics as literature without ample mentions of "Maus."

 

Take, for example, a piece by Barb Lien-Cooper of “The Park & Barb Show” from comicsbulletin.com entitled “Are Comic Books Literature?” In this article, Cooper states that even posing the question of whether or not comics should be taken seriously by the mainstream is a futile effort. She goes on to say that those who attempt to only “use the best and brightest examples of comic book writing in order to make what they’re reading more legitimate…we’ve all known fanboys who have written a term paper concerning comics as literature. They site Maus, Watchmen, Sandman, and so forth as examples of the heights the medium can rise to, as the works that make the comic book readers at least as smart as those who read  Shakespeare. Then, after writing the paper, they go back to reading Top Cow comics and Spawn.” After reading this statement, I can’t help but ask a number of questions:  1.) Does what people choose to read for entertainment purposes mean they can’t make a rational arguments bout other “higher” forms of literature? 2.) Is it fair to assume that all readers who want to argue the validity of comics in lit are “fanboys” and therefore just disregard their arguments? 3.) Does every comic in existence need to be on par with “Shakespeare” for it to be considered literature?

I find this article and statement problematic for many reasons. First I’ll address the first question at hand. Say I’m a film major, en route to becoming a film critic or at least a connoisseur. I’ve studied all the classics and consider them some of my favorites. I’ve done all the necessary work and I’ve even been lauded by others in my field. But after all of my hard work is done, I like to kick back with a beer and enjoy an American Pie film, just for laughs. Does that make every point and judgment I’ve made about film moot? Does that mean I can no longer cohort with other film lovers?  How about if I ‘m a Literature major, maybe even on my way to becoming a professor, and I’ve studied and enjoyed all the classics? I’ve done mounds of research on fellows like Joyce, Faulkner and the ever-revered Shakespeare. I’m knowledgeable in the subject and a fan at the same time. But, when I have free time or when I’m at the beach, I take in a tawdry romance novel or two. What does this say about me? Is everything I’ve ever researched and discussed wrong? And just what if in my free time I choose to pick up a comic book, or a graphic novel? Should my degree be revoked? This same scenario can be applied strictly to comics. What if someone gets some grand ideas from some of the always-referenced, poignant graphic novels but at the same time enjoys a superhero comic? Does that mean that all of the above pieces of work are at the same level, and all the readers must just be fanboys? It doesn’t seem to make much sense.  And on that note, why is it that a appreciator of comic books must be considered a “fanboy”? Sexist connotations aside, there is undoubtedly a negative connection with the word “fanboy.” It takes one out of the comfort zone of being interested in all aspects of comics, and places the reader in the manic zone of being a fanatic, blinded by their devotion to the comics world, and therefore unable to form a logical, rational or well-thought out argument about comics rightful place in the literary “canon.”

What disappoints me most about this article is the assumptions and hasty generalizations made about both comic fans and literary critics alike. Cooper goes on to give some “helpful” guidelines for comic fans to take into consideration:

In other words, don’t play around with high culture/low culture distinctions if you aren’t into high culture in the first place. It makes one’s arguments look spurious and it makes the comics industry look ridiculous. The mainstream aren’t going to believe the arguments and will most likely look down on those making them…Fans DO have to stop apologizing to the world for liking comics. We do have to show the mainstream that we aren’t losers, freaks, misfits, or total outsiders. However, snob appeal arguments help no one. The part of the mainstream which actually reads literature isn’t going to believe that comics are literature, no matter what the arguments are or who makes them. The part of the mainstream that doesn’t read literature just see those comics fans who make literature arguments as being geeks, dweebs, and eggheads. Instead, maybe we should start aiming our arguments to those who will actually listen to us. For instance, instead of saying that comics can be literature, why not say instead that they are cleverly formed units of popular entertainment with something for everyone? By aiming a tad lower, we might be able to get in the crowd that doesn’t read Jane Eyre but does read Angela’s Ashes or The Green Mile.

Again, there’s an immediate conclusion that comic book fans and literature fans are from two entirely different worlds, unable to ever meet in the middle, see eye-to-eye, or *gasp* actually be one. All literature fans consider comic fans nerds. All literature fans are, in turn, snobs. Seems pretty juvenile to me. While I do agree the comic fans need not apologize, and that there’s nothing wrong with making the argument that comics provide something for everyone, why must aim one “lower” to get recognition? (Citing Jane Eyreas an example, the aim must be lower than a high-school

"Crime and Punishment" by David Zane Mairowitz and Alain Korkos.

reading capacity, and geared toward the books-made-into-movies popular mainstream).

But what about those graphic novels and comic series that are well-thought out, richly written and illustrated and have a poignant message? Why should they, to put this dated article into today’s perspective, only ever be compared to books like the Twilight franchise? Why should they only be accepted into the typical mainstream but not into the “canon”? What about those graphic novelized versions of classic pieces of literature like David Zane Mairowitz and Alain Korkos’ comic version of Crime and Punishment, or R. Crumb’s take on The Book of Genesis? Where do they lie?  The argument becomes more and more muddled as more and more pieces of “canon”-esque comics are published.

Cooper concludes her tirade by stating that “there’s about as much crap and as much good stuff in it as in any other entertainment medium. Comics can be clever, well-written, involving popular entertainment, but they’re pop entertainment nonetheless. That’s as should be. Comics aren’t meant to be literature, appealing only to those with cobwebs in their brains. Comics are meant to be enjoyed by all.”  Again, crude stereotyping of literature fans. Is this not snobbery on her part, to say that comics are for everyone – so long as they’re not read by literature fans with “cobwebs in their brains”? Comics, for Cooper, are meant to be disposable. Not revered, just simply mainstream trash that can be easily forgotten. Doesn’t make working in comics seem like a worthwhile choice, now does it?

However, the idea of comics as disposable is not an idea only presented by Cooper. John Goodrich has devoted an entire article to it, called “Comic Books: Disposable Literature?” In this piece, he states that comics can not be well-written because the writers are on such a time crunch to get them out weekly or monthly, that the work suffers. He also states that comics “are essentially meant to be experienced once. They are read, and the surprise is gone, and few of the plots and story lines are worth going back and rereading. Like TV episodes…The show may have been good the first time around, but a second? We know what’s going to happen. Often there’s nothing else to see in an episode after the first time. There are of course exceptions: X-Files and The Simpsons episodes stand up very well to being taped and re-watched, but these are definitely exceptions. Comics are much the same.” So, if there are exceptions to the rule, then how can we just easily throw the argument of comics as being anything but disposable away? On top of the fact that the whole argument is very subjective. Some people can re-watch television shows a multitude of times and catch something new and different each time. So can be said for comic books. What makes classic literature re-readable? The different levels of writing and metaphors and imagery create a new experience every time it’s read – why can’t that be the same for comics and graphic novels? Could there not be subtleties within the art itself that goes unnoticed by the reader’s eye the first time it is taken in? Can not the words and images paint a different picture sand story every time it’s read? Perhaps not, if we only treat the work as disposable. Again, that lies solely in the hands of the reader.

Goodrich then goes into a little history of the evolution of comics, focusing on the Penny Dreadful comics of the 1800s:

While literary titans like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens were writing their masterpieces that would last out two centuries, people like James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Pecket Priest were writing Penny Dreadfuls…They frequently had bloody, vicious plots, designed to keep people coming back for more week after week…Like the dozens of lost Greek plays, we don’t have these texts. Nobody thought that these penny dreadfuls were worth keeping, despite the fact that hundreds and thousands of people bought and read them. One of the most successful of the penny dreadfuls, Varney the Vampire, was eventually reprinted as a whole three times, once in 1840, and then again in 1847. Neither of these editions has produced many remaining copies—and certainly none that were available in America until Dover Books eventually reprinted it in 1976. Even that edition is hard to find, because it is not considered serious literature. And having struggled through some 118 pages of Varney, its not difficult to see why. The writing is average, even somewhat readable, but the action is incredibly drawn out, and the plot amazingly slow. Nothing happens quickly. Varney was challenged to a duel on page 84, and the damn thing still hasnt come about, thirty pages of tiny print later. This is because the author was working on several penny dreadfuls at this time (sound familiar?), and had an estimated published output of approximately 70,000 words a month. Handwritten. If youre pouring out that many words, you certainly aren’t choosing them with care. But he made those weekly deadlines, by God!

The cover image from one of the original "Varney the Vampire" publications.The cover image from one of the original “Varney the Vampire” publications.

When Goodrich begins this statement, he name drops the two authors creating “serious literature” at the time: Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. The biggest difference between them (namely Dickens) and the comic writers were the amount of time and devotion given to their work. Hm. Interesting. Many of people have often cited the myth that Dickens wrote long pieces because he was paid by the word. This is not true. However, he was paid by installment. From the online Dickens Project:

Dickens published his novels in serial form. That is to say, the novels appeared serially, or over a period of many weeks or months (much as a modern-day soap opera appears daily, or a modern sit-com appears weekly). Most of the novels, including Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, appeared in monthly parts following a very specific formula developed by Dickens and his publishers with the release of Dickens’s first full-length novel The Pickwick Papers (1836 – 37). The Pickwick Papers appeared in 20 parts over a period of 19 months. (The last part was a “double issue” that included parts 19 and 20). Each part contained 32 pages of letter press, 2 illustrations, various advertisements, and came wrapped in a flimsy green-paper front and back cover. The price for each part was one shilling (except for the last “double issue,” which was two). This price was very cheap compared to the standard price of a book, which at the time was 31 shillings 6 pence.

Dickens’s 20-part formula was successful for a number or reasons: each monthly number created a demand for the next since the public, often enamored of Dickens’s latest inventions, eagerly awaited the publication of a new part; the publishers, who earned profits from the sale of numbers each month, could partially recover their expenses for one issue before publishing the next; and the author himself, who received payment each time he produced 32 pages of text (and not necessarily a certain number of words), did not have to wait until the book was completed to receive payment. It was largely on the strength of his generous monthly stipend for The Pickwick Papers that Dickens was able to marry Catherine Hogarth in 1836.

So the authors of the penny dreadfuls were creating their works in serial form, maybe in more rapid succession, but the method was not far off from Dickens’. The main difference being that Charles Dickens garnered much larger of a profit from his work. They were created, however, for soap-opera like entertainment. So, is it number of words alone that make his works timeless and the comic authors’ works disposable? Or was it merely because they strayed so far from the mainstream at the time? And once again, who was in charge of deciding whose work was serious and whose was not? Seems to be a monetary issue as opposed to an actual analysis of the work at hand.

Goodrich also goes on to argue that the writing is not the only reason as to why comics are disposable:

Look at the physical makeup of a comic book. Thirty pages of fairly flimsy newsprint, delivered in a form that can’t even stand by itself. Comics stack well, but they aren’t easy to store. While the bookshelf is a generalized piece of equipment that can hold just about anything, the comic book collector needs all sorts of paraphernalia; boxes, bags, and backing boards. Comics are simply not that convenient to keep.This is probably why Dark Horse and Vertigo are putting out so many bound graphic novels. A graphic novel is something that can stand up to repeated readings physically, and the reader can just stick it on their easily-accessible bookshelf when they’re done. It is wide enough to be identifiable from the edge, so it feels like it belongs on a bookshelf. You can put your Elektra Assassin graphic right next to The Grapes of Wrath, Executioner’s Song, or even your Shakespeare collection. A graphic novel belongs on a bookshelf, not locked away in some lightless box. Graphic novels are a step forward in the legitimizing of the comic book industry.

Oh, yes, that’s right. We can measure a novel’s worth based on it’s outward appearance! This is probably the most literal example of judging a book by its cover. This article is a bit dated, so I can allow for some excuses, but over recent years few comic books still have newspaper print, often opting for a higher-quality, glossy, magazine-like paper instead. Likewise, buying bags, boxes and cardboard backing really isn’t all that much of a hassle. Goodrich also legitimizes graphic novels as being worthy enough to stand next to Shakespeare – purely based on size alone. I can only wonder what this means for all smaller books. Is Common Sense by Thomas Pane disposable, since it is essentially a pamphlet rather than a larger-width book? An argument based on facade seems invalid on all ends.

So far, it seems as if comic books cannot be literature because literature, based on above claims,  needs to be wordy, lengthy, in book form (and preferably a larger-width book), endlessly re-readable, and read by people who understand literature and very little else. If this is how comic book enthusiasts, or at very least fans, view literature (and by extent, comic books) then how do those in the literature business view the matter? In his essay “How Comic Books Can Change the Way Our Students See Literature: One Teacher’s Perspective,” English professor and writer Rocco Versaci explains that in the classroom, he often poses the question “what is literature?”  and gets responses such as “literature is difficult, literature is boring, literature is something that people have decided was ‘good’ or ‘important” (61).  Versaci then goes on to explain why these responses are problematic:

The responses interest me because it reveals my students’ awareness of a “canon” (however problematic that word has become) and the sense that certain works are more worthy of serious attention than others; at the same time, the way they express this definitions troubles me because it indicates their sense of removal from the processes of evaluation that help establish this canon. In their view, decisions about “literary quality” — whatever that term might mean — are made by others, the “they from which so many important decrees flow. [61]

When literature is regarded as something so weighty and far beyond mere readers’ grasp, it creates a distance between a piece of literature and its potential readers/fans.  Perhaps the closeness between comics and their fans is one of the reasons many in the comic industry don’t want them to be regarded as literature, for fear of becoming less accessible to those who have been devoted to them for so long. This, however, does not have to be so – in regards to both comic books and literature. Dr. Rocco Versaci believes that it lies in the hands of educators to bridge this gap:

As teachers of literature, we should not strive to get students to accept without question our own judgments of what constitutes literary merit, for such acceptance inevitably places students in the position of seeing literature as a “medicine” that will somehow make them better people, if only they learn to appreciate it. When students view literature in this light, they resent it, and literary works remain a mystery they cannot solve. What is more, this goal of simply passing our own judgments along to our students often impedes what should be our primary goal: to encourage students to see themselves as having a voice in the question of what constitutes literary merit by defining reasonable parameters by which to judge a creative work and articulating why and how that work is — or is not — within those parameters. Only by helping students to achieve this voice do we help them become active, critical, and engaged readers. [61-62]

As readers, it is up to us to decide what criterion should be set in order to define what literature “is,” and that can and should vary from person to person. In order to fully enjoy literature, it lies on our hands to determine what it is by our own standards so that it can be enjoyed to its fullest extent. If this method is taught from an early point, so many students will not only have a broader scope in terms of lit, but will be more willing and genuinely want to read more. When students are able to see that literature can actually be enjoyable, they’ll be more eager to study it as well. With this, introducing comic books into literature courses both early in a student’s educational career and even in college classes [which is already taking place in many schools all over the country] is a great way to bridge that gap between potential reader and literature. Dr. Versaci has both tried and proven this method to be successful:

Many of my students were already familiar with most of these media, though not familiar enough to protect them from surprise. Case in point were the comics. Shortly after we began to discuss John Callahan’s “I think I Was an Alcoholic Waiting to Happen,” it became clear that my students were unaware that comics could and did address mature subject matter…My students were initially surprised by the tone and focus of the story, one student going so far as to say “This isn’t a comic.” … Adolescents and teenagers today are surrounded by diverse and increasingly complex media, and some will often find classroom materials to be dull, irrelevant, or both. But by placing a comic book – the basic form of which they no doubt recognize – into the context of a classroom, teachers can catch students off guard in a positive way, and this disorientation has, in my experience, led students to be come more engaged by a given work.  [62]

With mixed media becoming a gradual and educational norm, it only seems appropriate and necessary that comic books become a regular part of a teaching curriculum. But is this to say that comics are only necessary to make interested because it’s relevant in pop culture? What can students really gather about literature from reading comics? Versaci explains that students can develop analytical and critical thinking skills by studying comics. He states that “in addition to making use of standard literary devices such as point of view, narrative, characterization, conflict, setting, tone, and theme, they also operate with a very complex poetics that blends the visual and textual…by combining words and pictures, comic books force students, rather directly, to reconcile these two means of expression” [64].

Can you guess what this is?

By examining the combination of images + words, students are not only learning how to analyze a piece of literature, but also an introductory course on how to examine art. Does a mix of the two make a piece of literature automatically disposable? I’d beg to differ. Would Sterne’s pages of doodles in Tristram Shandy, Vonnegut’s frequent drawings in Breakfast of Champions, and even Joyce’s dazzling way of creating an art from the placement of words on the page in Ulyssesmake the texts themselves worthless? Hardly. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe this indicates that introducing images and art into a piece of literature doesn’t have to demean the work or make it “childish,” but instead enrich and add even more layers of meaning to the text itself. The two forms of art do not always need to be mutually exclusive.

With the advent of beautifully illustrated and fantastically written novels like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home cracking Time magazine book lists and winning literature awards, and the list of mature, richly-written graphic novels growing day by day, it almost seems ridiculous and even impossible to still turn our noses up at comic books and graphic novels. But, do comics need to be in novel form and blatantly about mature themes/geared toward an adult audience for them to be considered “literature”? What about the superhero and humor comics we read in our spare time – you know, those ones that all those freaks and geeks return to after hootin’ and hollerin’ about comics’ literary merit? Do those all necessarily need to be considered “disposable”? Is it not possible for us to look back on superhero comics from the past as a way of peeking into what life was once like, maybe even how certain villains portrayed stereotypes of what were considered the “enemies” of the time, and how we chose to represent both them and ourselves?  Perhaps akin to reading Huckleberry Finn, despite the current stigma against it, even if it allows us to analyze more clearly from a completely new and developed point of view that differs from the ones at the time, and a clearer understanding of both the author’s representation and satire of the views of the time – which are made especially evident in the editions containing the illustrations by Edward Windsor Kemble and John Harley. I realize that even daring to make this comparison makes me an enemy in the eyes of comics and literature fans alike, not to mention automatically placing me as a fanboy [even despite my gender]. Not to mention, we often look to political satire cartoons of the past as a way of understanding the history of politics – can’t this be done with all humor cartoons of the past, often displaying the issues at hand at the time they were written?

And what about current comics? Should only older comics be looked at as literature because we can judge them from a new viewpoint? (An issue, I’m sure, arises with all forms of literature). How can we take this approach with current comics? First, one must realize that there are more to comic books than just superhero comics, and it is worth looking into independent comic creators, companies and yes, even web-comics that are fabulously written and illustrated, highly worthy of analysis as well as entertainment.

But comics as lit do not have to be restricted to independent comics. For example, take a look at the fantastic, on-going Life With Archie series from Archie Comics, catching the readership of adolescents and adults alike. While very akin to a soap opera, the action of the series often plays out more like a Russian, Chekhovian drama. Each new issue begs the reader to re-read all previous issues in order to analyze the way the dialogue is said, facial expressions are represented and tone to draw lines between in order to understand how the events have played out, especially with the constant use of foreshadowing. Critical and analytical thinking is often employed, even if it’s an unconscious act. This too can even be used for superhero comics from the greats like DC and Marvel. Likewise, comics geared towards children can be an effective tool for teaching children how to read, by allowing them to both see and understand what the text is telling them.

So, are comics a viable form of literature? Yes. To me, at least. Because in the end, it should be up to me, as a reader, to decide what literature “is,” and “is not.”  Fellow readers and educators alike should encourage everyone to determine the parameters by which their views of literature are defined. Once this is established, analytical thinking is in place, and it becomes more of an enjoyable experience and less of a chore to read, and even study, literature.

And yes, literature should be enjoyed.

Sources:

Goodrich, John. “Comic Books: Disposable Literature?” Qusoor.com, the Home Page of John Goodrich. Elder Gods Rave #12. Gothik APA., Aug. 1998. Web. 31 July 2011..
Lien-Cooper, Barb. “Park Cooper and Barb Lien-Cooper: The Park & Barb Show – Are Comic Books Literature?” Comics Bulletin. Comicsbulletin.com, 21 July 2000. Web. 31 July 2011. <http://www.comicsbulletin.com/pb/9642245292880.htm&gt;.
Versaci, Rocco. “How Comic Books Can Change the Way Our Students See Literature: One Teacher’s Perspective.” The English Journal 91.2 (2001): 61-67. Alechosterman.com. Nov. 2001. Web. 31 July 2011..
“Was Dickens Really Paid by the Word?” The Dickens Project. University of California. Web. 31 July 2011. http://dickens.ucsc.edu/faq/bytheword.html.

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1 Comment

Filed under Comic Books, Literary Criticism, Manifestos, Opinions, Thoughts, Uncategorized

One response to “Comic Books: A Viable Form of Literature?

  1. Pingback: On Children’s Literature and Censorship – A Brief Look at Art, Literary Theory & Scary Stories | Indecent and Immortal

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