Comics THORsday: Comics as Literature

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Welcome to another Comics Thorsday! Today we’re going to consider an idea: comics as literature. Traditionally, comics have been regarded as part of the pop culture. However, belonging to pop culture does not give a great status, since high arts are those that are better considered by society as a whole. Thus, novels are regarded as literature, and comic books are not. But, could we see comics as literature? I argue that they are. Art Spiegelman is the author of Maus, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s not an easy read since it depicts the Holocaust. Beyond the hard topics it touches, if you read it, you’ll discover a masterpiece. But can other graphic novels and comics be thought or seen as literature? I think so.

To critic comics from a literary point of view isn’t that easy, even if the comic we have in front of us might seem light in contents. The nature of the medium, a mix of pictures and writing, makes it special and more complicated than meets the eye. Not only words have to be analyzed but also how panels are presented, and the artwork as well. Comics are a flexible medium with limitations that can be used to narrate incredible stories that can be as compelling, or even more, than literary works such as bestselling novels. Hence, analyzing a comic book could end up being more compelling and challenging than analyzing a novel.

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Comic books can be very enriching if read from a literary point of view. However, we must remember that they are more than just words: they are also art. They are flexible, so they can depict time slowly or quickly. You could have in one panel the depiction of Caesar’s assassination, and in the next futuristic technology similar to Star Trek. Thus, the use of other elements apart from words and pictures, like the disposition of panels and how onomatopoeia has been integrated into the page, gives us subtle clues about the narrative and the story.

The different layers of comic books make of them a literary medium in which we use more than one point of view to deciphering or analyzing the work. It could be argued that most of the contents are already given to us, giving almost no space for imagination. However, the usage of panels and the gaps that must be filled from panel to panel fuel the readers imagination. Including sounds. The sound is missing from comics, but it is represented by onomatopoeia or even drawings. This triggers memories, imagination and shared cultural cues among the readers.

So, can comics be considered literature? Yes, since they are literature. They are not an obvious medium that can be easily dismissed as works for children. We must remember that Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter are targeting children, but that doesn’t make of them less of literary masterpieces.

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  • Yes!! All of this! A hundred times yes!! Although, people question if we are using our imagination in comics it can be argued that comics continue to spark us questioning things. They push our imagination to the brink, sure we are given a idea of a character but you can shift and mold their hidden motives filling in the blanks.

    I think comics as literature help push the envelope of what we can talk about. They are well written works without all of the mumbo jumbo of text. They effectually get their points across with beautiful and colorful works or art.

    • I think comics are a great medium to spark imagination and help thinking in other ways. It’s good to read books, but it’s also good to read comics. Besides, they’re a good medium for us to relax and let critical thinking to sink in. Think about humanity: we started with art, cave painting. Then we added writing to the painting, like Egyptians did. And finally we mastered the mixture with comics! We should think seriously about the combination of art and written word since it can be very powerful.

  • Kay

    I completely agree that yes, they absolutely can be literature! I think the best example is Watchmen. That graphic novel is utterly stunning, from the panel work to the design to the writing. In fact, I wish it was also offered as just a novel, without the images, so the pretentious people who look down on graphic novels will read it and realize WOW THIS IS AMAZING LITERATURE and hopefully have a change of heart! I was blow away the first time I read it. Sandman by Neil Gaiman is the exact same. Excellent literature. I definitely think that sometimes, the art can carry a comic. But every so often you read something where the writing is the star, and the images just give it that extra boost of goodness.

    • Oh yes! Watchmen is a masterpiece!! I think that the division of High Culture and Pop Culture is doing a poor service to culture. Thinking that pop culture is less than high culture (even the names are wrong here, imho) make us overlook great masterpieces that are out there. You can find jewels in the most unexpected places πŸ˜‰ We only need to be open to look everywhere πŸ™‚ As you said, it’s amazing literature, but only if we let it in!

  • Danielle Knapp

    Great post! Absolutely think they could be considered literature

    • πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ yay! πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

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