Comics as Literature — Some Starting Points

Superhero Comics as Literature: “It was precisely this pathos that made the potential literary quality of superhero comics almost impossible. Before Starman, comics like the aforementioned Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns took the “reality principal” found in the early Marvel Comics, (Spiderman is really a nerdy shy high-schooler that can’t get a date) and gave it an edge that infused the comics with a real relevance. But quickly this “reality principal” itself became formulaic: Marriage (Superman!), divorce, death, alcoholism (Iron Man!), violence, are certainly things that people experience, but when they happen in a cape it is almost impossible to control. You end up with worse caricatures than before, as when the superheroes only had secret identities so they could pay their rent.”

A New Frame for Comic Books: “It saddens me that, by and large, Americans still don’t know the literary value of comic books. Much of the world and certain domestic pockets already know that the cultural stereotypes on comic books is long past over and a new generation of exceptional works awaits our discovery.”

Are Comic Books Literature? “I, for one, am not ashamed to say that comic books are a form of entertainment no different than any other form of popular entertainment. As such, 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.”

Eddies in the Mainstream: “Clearly, repeating the past is a poor strategy to rejuvenate an art form. Nevertheless, the alternative that is most often offered, that comics adopt the subject matter and techniques of High Art, runs into a problem that is equally obvious at this point. ”

The Difference Between Comics and Literature: “The BOE claims that comics produced by Mavrides and other artists are not literature, but camera-ready commercial art, which is taxable. ”

© 2004, DrMabuse. All rights reserved.

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  1. This whole argument seems so silly to me. Depending on how one defines “literature” the whole problem changes.

    Comics are a medium. Like TV or film or prose. There’s good, there’s bad. There’s quality, there’s crap.

    Certainly not all comics are literary in a qualitative sense of the word, but certainly some are (off the top of my head: Love and Rockets, A good bit of Alan Moore’s work, Sandman, Cerebus, Maus, Blankets, etc.)

    The reason so many comics people get all up in arms about comics as literature is because of the stranglehold that superhero comics (generally not literary) have on the medium and how that tends to drown out (though less and less in recent times) the better non-superhero works.

  2. Derik: In the original article, Rowson never says people are trying to make comic books literature, he says comic books are not good art. So he’s not confusing mediums. He’s saying comic books have no redeeming value for anyone who isn’t a retarded adolescent.
    As far as your last paragraph, yeah most people equate comics with superheros. They can’t see the potential because all they can see are tights and capes.
    Ed: Thanks for all the great links on this today. You’re awful busy for someone on hiatus.

  3. “In the original article, Rowson never says people are trying to make comic books literature, he says comic books are not good art.”

    Which is basically just denigrating a whole medium regardless of the quality of individual works. It’s a completely uneducated opinion.

  4. One quibble: I think we’re on a slippery slope when we start dismissing the potential of superhero comics to be good art themselves. Some of them have been/are. They have certainly managed to inspire a helluva a lot of good work by a certain group of writers (Lethem, Chabon, etc.).

  5. I wasn’t trying to denigrate superheros, but I can see how I might have come across that way. I was saying people think superheros are silly, so they don’t bother to actually read the stories or see the potential of the medium in general.
    And yeah, Derik, that’s what bothers me too.

  6. “I think we’re on a slippery slope when we start dismissing the potential of superhero comics to be good art themselves.”

    I don’t mean to dismiss superheroes across the board (I love Promethea, and god help me, am even going to read X-Man again now that Whedon is on board), but still the dominant image of comics is superheroes and for the most part superhero comics aren’t very good.

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