Modern Literature

Have you ever heard of Scott McCloud? He’s a comic book writer and artist who does a comic called Zot! What’s more important is that he’s done a series of graphic novels that educate about comic books. His first book is called Understanding Comics. It’s actually very good. It won awards and such. So why am I bringing this up? Well, I just saw that Scott McCloud did a Ted talk. I’ll put the link to it at the bottom. I’ve got to say, it’s pretty interesting. I won’t go into what it’s about this blog entry, just so you can take a gander at the video.

Welcome to another Fabulous Frog Blog! So why bring up the Ted talk and Scott McCloud? After watching the video, it reminded me of an essay I wrote for an English class a couple of years ago. It was an argument for whether or not comic books are considered literature. Since it has been a couple of years, I couldn’t tell you what grade I got on it. But after giving it another look over, I’d like to share that essay with you now. I believe it still holds onto some truths about the industry today.

Are Comic Books Literature?

Lately, there have been a bunch of movies based off of comic books. As a fan of comic books, I am pretty thrilled by this. There should be a surge in comic book sales. However, this does not seem to be the case. After talking to a few comic book store owners, comic book sales have only slightly increased. The increase in sales of books based off of comic book movies is really due to interest of people who already collect and read comic books anyway. People who have seen the movies are not interested in reading the source material. When talking to students in colleges and high schools, and even teachers, their response seems to be that while they enjoy the comic book movies, they have no interest in reading the books because the comics are not worth reading because they are not really books or literature worth reading. I thought this reasoning was unfair. If movie studios are willing to pay millions of dollars to make a movie based off of a comic book, then surely the source material is worth reading. But are comic books literature? Of course comic books are literature. To prove this, it will require more investigation. But why go through the trouble of proving that comic books are literature? Comic books are not being read by the general public today. Instead, comic books are thought of as those silly little books with the pictures of guys in tights. While that statement might be true in one sense, there is much more going on within those pages. Hopefully by proving that comic books are indeed literature, more people not generally exposed to reading them will find themselves a little more willing to giving comic books a chance and pick one up and read it.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the definition of literature is “1. written works with artistic value: written works, e.g. fiction, poetry, and criticism, that are recognized as having important or permanent artistic value. 2. body of written works: the body of written works of a culture, language, people, or period of time.” So there is no mistaking that with comic books, there is in fact a writer who comes up with the plots and dialogue of the story. This is then translated by the artist, who then creates the pictures that go along with the story with the word balloons giving the dialogue for the reader. So just going by the definition of literature, comic books are written works with artistic value. But what is artistic value? There are many definitions to be found, but the one I found that best defines it is that “artistic value is the attempt of an artist to convey a concept or emotion in a non-direct fashion to an audience.” I have found this definition several times in my research including Joseph Campbell’s, The Power of Myth.

So do comic books have any artistic value? According to Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics, he defines comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” These definitions are very similar. There is no question that there is artwork in each comic book, but does it have artistic value? Is it possible to tell what the story is if there was no dialogue to read? That would certainly depend on the abilities of the artist. However, telling of stories with only images is not limited to comic books. Many ancient cultures used sequential art to communicate. Aborigines in Australia used to draw art in caves, as did many American Indians. Also, ancient Egyptians and Mayans used their own art to tell the history of their peoples. I am pretty sure there are not any word balloons carved into cave or pyramid walls.

The images carved into pyramids and caves certainly do tell the story of the history of what happened to the people and their cultures. Comic books do tell history as well. While they may not have actual history lessons within the panels, a closer look will reveal much of what was going on in those days that the comic was published. In the early 1900’s, comic strips in newspapers were extremely popular. They were done for entertainment purposes, but these strips can tell us the manner in which people dressed, their manner in which they spoke and slang, and even the popular culture of what they viewed as humorous and entertaining. Soon, comic strips were collected into comic books, or funny books as they were called. There were some attempts at serious titles, such as Mandrake the Magician or Jack Armstrong. But comic books did not gain huge popularity until the publication of Action Comics #1, which featured the very first appearance of Superman. Soon after, there was a flood of costumed crime fighters in every comic book. Even though there were stories of characters from alien worlds, the history lesson can still be learned. The characters may not change, or if they do, very slightly, but time and society does. Characters rarely grow old and die. The Superman or Batman that was read back over sixty years ago is still the same, but they now live in a modern society. Also, major events in history can be seen throughout comic books. Captain America was seen fighting Nazis during World War II. Although this might be a look at history to those who read the book now, back then, the book was propaganda to inspire the young. Throughout history, many events can be seen in plots of various comic books. Even tragic events, such as 9/11 are seen in the pages of comic books as a horrific event that has affected comic book characters, heroes and villains. While the comic books themselves are not meant to be used as history lessons, future readers will see events that happened today.

Joseph Campbell talks about his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, in disk one, “The Hero’s Adventure” of the audio book The Power of Myth. Mythology has certainly been considered literature. It is a body of written works of a culture and a period of time. Joseph Campbell goes on to explain the journey of a mythological hero. He begins by going into an ordinary world but is called into a strange world of unusual powers and events (or an adventure). The hero then faces tasks and trials after answering the call to the adventure. He may or may not have to face these trials alone, but if he survives, then he is given a great gift which is often a discovery of important knowledge of himself. The hero can then return to the ordinary world and possibly face other trials and challenges. Once he does return, he can use this gift to improve the world. Not only is this a description of the mythological hero, I believe this describes comic book heroes as well. Many superheroes have a secret identity so they can live in a modern world. Without fail, a villain will appear that the hero must don his costume or uniform to fight the newest evil, whether it be an old villain with a new plan or weapon, or a new villain he or she has never faced before. During the battle between hero and villain or villain’s plan, the hero figures out how to defeat the villain. It may be from brute strength, or figuring out the villain’s ultimate plan and thwarting it. That is the “reward” from facing the challenge, the knowledge of what to do. He then uses this knowledge to win the battle, thus making the world a better, if not safer, place. It is true that not every story within the pages of every comic book follows this structure, every hero experiences it at least once. So it can be said that the comic book superhero is the modern day mythological hero. The comic books of today are modern day mythological stories.

In an article by Kurt Amacker titled “Words and Pictures: Comics vs. Literature,” Amacker takes the opposing view that comic books cannot be literature. His main argument for this is that he believes that literature is strictly prose and to consider the stories to be literature would be to negate the importance of the artist. Of course, without an artist, comic books would not exist. However, in disk three, “The First Storytellers,” of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, Campbell actually says about artists, “his function is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” This tells me that the artist is indeed important in comic book creation. The writer may come up with the script, plot, dialogue, and panel by panel descriptions, it is up to the artist to translate everything into a cohesive image. The artist becomes the storyteller.

Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics talks about comics as an art-form. He even asks the question, “can comics be art?” He goes on to say that, while that is a stupid question, the answer is, “yes!” McCloud’s definition of art is any human activity that does not stem from the two human instincts of survival and reproduction. So in this case, anything else can be considered art, such as playing basketball to fishing in a lake. The act itself is not art, but how it is done is the art. My way of playing basketball, my moves and strategies, are different from someone else’s. Certainly comics are then considered art, right? All artists have created art at one time or another because they have a passion for it, not because they needed to do it. McCloud then goes on to say that we are all unique artists in our own way. If two separate artists were to draw the same comic book script, the main idea would be the same, but both renditions could look very different from each other. Comics certainly can be art.

Scott McCloud wrote a sequel to his book Understanding Comics called Reinventing Comics. While most of the book addresses what comic books need to do to change with the times when it comes to society and technology, McCloud does address that comics can become literature. During the late 80’s to the 90’s, there was a sudden rise in comic book sales, but it was not due to incredible stories or art. It was due to speculation of the value of comic books. There is no doubt that at one time, comic books were collectible. Action Comics #1 is still worth about sixty thousand dollars, depending on condition. However, during the 90’s, an event occurred that sent speculators to comic book shops across the nation. That event was “The Death of Superman.” Millions of copies of these books went out across the world. But what speculators did not seem to realize, with so many copies of these books, there is no demand for them, especially if everyone has their own copy. But even with this event, independent comics were still being done and raising the bar on quality of story. Books such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta were getting high praise for their story content. Also, underground comic books were slowly gaining popularity, such as R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat or Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. These books showed relative seriousness, depth, and complexity.

So are comic books literature? I would have to say that comic books are indeed literature. The popular opinion from interviews I have done with English teachers and professional blog writers, the answer would be yes. So even with redefining comic books as literature, how does this help the general public? How can the general public be convinced to read comic books? How do comic book shops get people who normally would not read a comic book to even step foot into a shop? There has actually been a movement to do so! Retailers, publishers, and distributors have come together to start an event called “Free Comic Book Day.” This started back in 2002 and happens the first Saturday in May. Since its inception, the event has grown larger and larger. To many comic book fans, it has become a holiday. Many comic book shops have made “Free Comic Book Day” into a huge event by not only giving out a free comic book, but to having appearances of artists or writers, bake sales, or just sales in general. The idea behind “Free Comic Book Day” is to bring new readers into the store. There has been a huge campaign to notify the general public that they can go in and get a free comic book to check out. Even popular actors, such as Hugh Jackman, help to advertise this event. Hopefully, new readers will become interested in comic books and continue to purchase more. Today is the first Saturday of May, and I had the opportunity to go to several comic book shops and talk to the managers there. “Free Comic Book Day” has become a success in the fact that there have been hundreds of books given away to new readers. But only time will tell if they will return to continue reading. My thoughts are to somehow show these new readers that comics are indeed literature and can be read as such and enjoyed instead of being thought as silly books with superheroes in tights. Instead, what they hold in their hands are worlds of mythological adventures told in a unique art-form.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph, and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. Minneapolis: HighBridge, 1988. Programs 1 - 6. Audio.

Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite comc Book Heroes. 1st ed. Canada: Little, Brown & Company Limited. 1995. Print.

Daniels, Les. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the world’s Greatest Comics. 1st ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated. 1991. Print.

Goulart, Ron. Great American Comic Books. 1st. Ed. Lincolnwood: Publications International, LTD., 2001. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 1st ed. New York: Paradox Press, 1993. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.

"Comic Book Literature." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Apr 2013 <http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=32521>.

“Words and Pictures: Comics vs. Literature.” Mania.com. 26 March 2008 < http://www.mania.com/words-pictures-comics-vs-literature_article_57837.html>.

Oh, and here’s the link to the Ted talk:

http://www.ted.com/talks/scott_mccloud_on_comics

Yes, I know this blog was long, and probably long winded. Until next week, be good to each other!


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