Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Literary Worth of Comics

The debate about whether or not comics are a form of literature has raged on since the early 80’s, and a key component in the debate is trying to build criteria for literary worth. This is, in my opinion, a fruitless endeavour. Literary worth is purely subjective and determined not by criteria, but by personal importance. The academic perception of literary worth is very different, and it’s this academic perception that I wish to discuss. It generally takes three elements into account when attempting to determine worth in storytelling mediums.

These elements are the narrative itself, it’s cultural importance and its Innovation as a piece of literature. When comparing comics to other forms of literature it becomes clear that the medium itself should not be ignored, but afforded a place among the literary elite.
Why do comics get a bad rap?
In order to fully understand why comics should be accepted as having literary worth we must first understand why they generally aren’t. Comics have been around since people could draw, but it wasn’t until the 1920’s and 30’s that the ‘American Comic’ became popular. The boom coinciding with other ‘low-brow’ literature of the time, namely science fiction and the pulps. Comics and pulps were inexpensive escapist fiction written simply with little subtext, so the story was easy to follow and easy to read. It was storytelling for the masses. Genre fiction in general has only recently gained critical acceptance anyway, with gothic horror such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stocker’s Dracula, followed by fantasy fiction such as The Lord of the Rings. Comics were doomed from the beginning.

It also doesn’t help the medium’s cause that there is a culture and perception that ‘comics are for children. I’m not sure how this perception came about. Certainly there have been many comics for children over the years, but for every Donald Duck, there was also a Fritz the Cat. Perhaps because comics have been used to bridge the gap between picture books and works of prose in teaching children to read or may be because they bear resemblance to children’s picture books, comics have been unfairly labelled ‘for kids’.

Unfortunately, another major factor that hurts the reputation of comics is comic readers themselves. Nerd culture often does more to discourage people from reading comics than it does to bring in new readership. There’s nothing worse than bringing a non-comic reader into a dark, greasy comic shop with a customer arguing with the shop attendant about whether Hulk could beat Superman in a fight. While there are great positive advocates for the comic industry out there, they are few and far between, unequally balanced by the obsessive fanboys spouting their nerd rage to anyone who will pretend to listen. Sorry, you know it’s true.

Having said all that, Comics should be accepted as having literary worth. Of course not all comics have literary worth, just like not all novels are worthy, but those shining examples of our medium deserve recognition. Here’s why.

Comics Can Have Strong Narrative
The narrative is, of course, the prime factor in storytelling. Without the narrative, there is no story. But stories are stories. Whether you’re reading A Tale of two Cities or Y: The Last Man, or watching The Shawshank Redemption, a good story can be told in any medium at all. When individual aspects of a narrative are analysed, one can see that the nature of the comics medium lends itself very well to the telling of good stories.
Plot – While plot is not the be all and end all of narrative (On the Road by Kerouac has no discernible plot whatsoever), a poor plot can certainly undermine the value of the narrative (Stephanie Myer’s Twilight, for example). A story in a comic needs to be told in a small number of pages, and can achieve it through the sequential images. They say a picture says a thousand words, and in the case of comic books, the pictures tell the story. Take this example from Raymond Feist’s Magician:

Pug tugged at the collar of his new tunic. It wasn’t really new, being one of Tomas’s old ones, but it was the newest Pug had ever owned. Magya, Tomas’s mother, had taken it in for the smaller boy, to ensure he was presentable before the Duke and his court. Magya and her husband, Megar the cook, were as close to being parents to the orphan as anyone in the keep. They tended his ills, saw that he was fed, and boxed his ears when he deserved it. They also loved him as if he were Tomas’s brother.
Pug looked around. The other boys all wore their best, for this was one of the most important days of their young lives. Each would stand before the assembled Craftmasters and members of the Duke’s staff, and each would be considered for an apprentice’s post. It was a ritual, its origins lost in time, for the choices had already been made. The crafters and the Duke’s staff had spent many hours discussing each boy’s merits with one another and knew which boys they would call.
The practice of having the boys between eight and thirteen years of age work in the crafts and services had proved a wise course over the years in fitting the best suited to each craft. In addition, it provided a pool of semiskilled individuals for the other crafts should the need arise. The drawback to the system was that certain boys were not chosen for a craft or staff position. Occasionally there would be too many boys for a single position, or no lad judged fit even though there was an opening. Even when the number of boys and openings seemed well matched, as it did this year, there were no guarantees. For those who stood in doubt, it was an anxious time.

This whole scene can be converted into one page:

Magician - Apprentice 02 - 04
With virtually no text, we still get the same sense of awkwardness and nervous energy as in a page of text.

Due to the nature of comics being released in monthly segments, A comic’s plot needs to be well structured. One could argue that each issue is equivalent to a chapter of the story (as in Alan Moore’s Watchmen) and to assist with the balance between a thorough, unrushed story and a small page count, comics rely heavily on pacing.
Pacing: Writers use all sorts of techniques to create the right pace – sentence structure, Alliteration and assonance, flashbacks and foreshadowing, etc. I think pacing is one area where comics are able to transcend its prose counterparts, as comics can use visual techniques as well as written to create pace. Some great examples can be found in the pages of Invincible By Kirkman and Otley:

The first is a great example of slow pacing. It gives the sense of the mundane, slow job the main character has, until he throws the garbage, and then we get a sense of shock, and dawning comprehension. We don’t need to read any words to know exactly what’s going on.
The second is a great example of fast pacing. The small, quick action sequences give a sense of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed, something that is difficult to achieve in prose fiction.
Characters: creating good characters that are relatable on some level, characters we love or love to hate, is important in driving the narrative forward. As an amateur (and later semi-professional) actor during high school, I played John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s the crucible. When I first read the script, I was totally engaged, not by proctor, but by Abigail, the young servant who was responsible for the false accusations of witchcraft and subsequent deaths of many of the major characters. Likewise, the main character of Vanity Fair by Thackeray, Becky Sharp, is so unlikable it makes the story very compelling. Good characters, including antagonists, are essential to create complications and drama in a narrative, and they are everywhere in comics. What’s more, a large part of what a character is feeling can be gleaned from visual cues – facial expressions, body language, even costume. Take this page for example:
Rogue 8

Only four pictures, but they tell us so much about the two characters. We get a real sense of drama and history between the two.

Dialogue: Another area that the comics medium has the potential to transcend other written works is in dialogue. There are two reasons for this – the first is that comics in their very nature are dialogue heavy, so writers are forced to continually work on their dialogue. This is not always the case, and many writers continue the Golden age tradition of clunky, expositional dialogue, but on the whole, good dialogue is a pre-requisite for good comic writers.
The second reason is that many comic writers write for film and television as well – in fact some of the best writers of comics dialogue (Brian K Vaughan, Peter David, Joss Whedon) are screenwriters. Comic scripts and screenplays are quite similar, and both focus fairly heavy on dialogue. A good comic writer or screenwriter will let the visual elements drive the exposition and the dialogue drive the character development.

Comics can have Social Importance
The second element that marks the perceived worth of literature is its longevity - whether it will stand the test of time. I think there are two parts to this, the first being the Themes explored within the narrative. Why do we still study Shakespeare in schools? Because the themes in his work are just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. These universal themes abound in comics, from the obvious struggle between good versus evil to the more abstract power politics in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The superhero is the outward expression of the inward desire to be something greater than what we are. Heroes like Captain America and Superman speak to the caring, just part of ourselves, while Batman represents the dark and painful. We see themes being played with in the subtext of non-superhero books as well. For many writers, their comics aren’t just about getting from a to b or who’s fighting who, but they are about love or peace or politics or ideals or roots or something else that is important to both writer or reader.
A work of fiction’s importance is also influenced by it’s social relevance. Jane Austin has endured because her novels are socially relevant, despite the massive changes in society since she wrote them. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, though set in late 17th century Massachusetts and about McCarthyism in the early 50’s, still has social relevance today. And because it is a snapshot of those periods, it has endured. Maus by Art Speilgman showed us what life was like during the second world war, and we can use that picture to give ourselves a better understanding of our society today. If Social Importance has bearing on literary worth, then many comics fit the bill.

Comics can Show Innovation in Storytelling.
Many ‘modern classics’ are such because they show great innovation in storytelling. Douglas Adam’s critically acclaimed Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy was completely different in it’s sarcastic brand of storytelling. The stream of consciousness that is Kerouac’s On the Road made it an American classic. The fact that art is such a diverse beast means comics can be innovative just by changing the pictures a bit. Here’s some examples:

four totally different artists (Eric Powell, Jeff leMire, Ben Templesmith and Rafael Grampa), four different feels, and some great innovative art. The diversity of the medium, not just artistically, but in the writing as well, means that comics can be so innovative. Anyone who’s every been through a Morrison mind warp can pay testament to that.

Comics have been a very misunderstood story telling medium, and I truly believe they deserve to be counted as literature. Furthermore, the visual element of comics opens up a whole knew set of tools for creators to tell their stories, and can be as technically proficient as and work by Thackeray or Dickens, as engaging as and Miller or Orwell and as relevant as any Austin or Shakespeare.

What do you think? post a comment below, or discuss it on the

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