By OrionStarlancer 40 Comments
I've heard people off and on talk about whether or not we should consider comics literature, or more common, whether some comics qualify as literature while others do not. Usually people welcome in titanic classics like Watchmen and the Extraordinary League of Gentlemen (which does, after all, use British literary characters) into the realm of literature, but keep out volumes like Final Crisis or even the Ultimates. Although I thought Watchmen was spectacular, I'm still weary of the argument that some comics may be elevated while others may not. Simply because these stories are accompanied by pictures is no reason to assume that the art-form is inferior, nor that only a portion of it escapes inferiority. The best way to approach this question is not to fractionalize the comic universe, but instead, to succinctly ask if all of the comic realm actually is literature (whether good or bad lit), or if it is something different entirely.
We consider many movies, which simultaneously use pictures and dialogue, to have a great artistic prestige and celebrate their success hand over fist, yet comics don't seem to receive the same respect. Sometimes, comic book characters, like Batman, make it to the silver screen and now the movie already rests comfortably on its laurels, yet the batman comics (although likely more popular than before) seem to have gained no more literary respect. Robert Bloch, in his introduction to Magnolia's Hellboy: Seeds of Destruction claims that Hellboy and more and more like it now gracefully work with a "deliberately satirized awareness of classical modes and content" and then reports this is, "the product of superb talents." Bloch understands that the comics are grounded in an instinct to entertain, but he also believes that in that entertainment comes complicated, intriguing, and demanding messages which have too often been thrown aside as "sleazy vehicles of violence" (Bloch). Bloch sees this partially as a problem evolving out of comic book history where the original stories so severely lacked depth that they gained a permanent bad name for what is now evolving into really savvy story-telling. But despite this evolution, should comics be welcomed into the realm of literature and be part of what we understand as high-caliber writing and story telling?
As Bloch insinuates, the problem must be the pictures. He received great praise on his work The Scarf from an avid comic critic despite that Bloch's own novel perpetrated "murder and mayhem" equal to or beyond what we see in comics today (Bloch). It seems readers may be more willing to encounter a knife to the gut carried along the whims of wanton words, but when the knife is painted before their eyes it becomes crude and distateful. But should a weak stomach really be a reason to take away the level of art? And must readers really be forced to work for every description? Comic books offer something much more immediate than other forms of writing because of the accompanied picture, but as Bloch would agree, they also offer a more interesting angle at satire and irony since the pictures and text can offer different ideas concurrently. So, let's say the author wants to show us the narrator is either in denial or is delusional. The opening lines could read, "I had a very happy childhood" and the image could show his father slapping him and his mother crying. A piece of only words can accomplish the same thing, but the pace must be slower so the effect might be less shocking and the emotional effect deadened. Additionally, who's to say that every novel deserves great praise?
When I think of popular fiction, three authors immediately come to mind: Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, and J.K. Rowling. All of these authors are extremely popular, but arguably King and Rowling are on a completely different level than Meyer. Even though Twilight has an indisputable popularity among teenagers right now, surely a great deal of comics have better story lines, character development, dialogue, meaning, use of metaphor, message, etc . . . King believes Meyer is a flash in the pan and won't last the ages, an argument that went viral a year or so ago. Whether or not he's right, the question is this: do we accept her level of writing as literature now? Because if we do, surely a great number of comics give us a better story at most every angle and ask important questions about our concept of heroism and desire to help, hurt, or sway others to help us with our problems or our bidding. But Meyer is only one author and shouldn't stand as the sole reason to invite comics into lit. The readers and the writers of these comics must ultimately make that decision.
Comics like Watchmen, which already are prevalent in college and high school classrooms, do inspire the possibility of more and more comics coming into a more respectful stature, but ultimately the demands of the readers must be met. If we readers ask for the challenging material, there are capable writers ready and waiting (and many already producing great art). Even if the story is grandiose, writers must also focus on the scientific, the awesome, and the meaningful found in great stories like Final Crisis, and stay away from immature and poor judgement calls like Spider-Man: One more day. It is in this charge that comics have the possibility to gain the respect they deserve and finally answer the question: yes, comics are literature.