Despite growing evidence to the contrary, the myth persists that certain artistic mediums are inferior to others, or to put it in layman’s terms, that comic books don’t count as literature. But I am not here to argue definitions; I am here to argue that comics deserve the same respect as books without pictures.
At some point during the turn of the century, the myth of comic book inferiority was considered all but true by the literary elite. Today, these moguls of classic education gather dust in old university libraries like aging mummies, grumbling about the decay of the written word. They extol the virtues of The Iliad, due to its historical importance, while never considering super hero comics, which are mostly based on The Iliad. After all, isn’t Hercules just Superman without the cape? Isn’t Hermes the same as the Flash? Didn’t the Ancient Greeks spend more time drawing pictures of their heroes than reading about them, since only an educated few could read, and books were only for the aristocracy that could afford them? But I digress . . .
I distinctly remember wanting to buy a few comics for the road trip I used to take with my parents, and being told with a sneer by the middle aged woman across the bookstore counter, “We don’t carry comic books here!” She acted as if I’d asked for the porn section (incidentally, there is a growing How-To-Do-Everything-Sex-Related section at my local Barnes & Nobles, so the times they are a-changin’). You’ll likely not encounter that kind of sneering attitude any more, with graphic novels garnering critical praise and literary accolades, but comics have a long way to go before they are deemed worthy to sit alongside the greats of literature. Some will argue that comic book readers are ignorant as to what constitutes literary greatness, that if only we knew better, we’d understand that anything with the word “Superman” on the cover can’t possibly sit next to The Great Gatsby. But since starting my life long journey to becoming an expert in all things story related, I never understood why any medium should be thought of as inferior to another. To receive my BA in English Literature, I had to read nearly one hundred authors, including such greats as Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hugo, Dumas, Dickens, Hawthorne, and Melville. Don’t get me wrong, I love classic authors, more than most people I know, but I am at a complete loss as to why Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Grant Morrison cannot be counted among them—not necessarily as equals—but at the very least, associates. I have never been taught a non-biased way to measure literary value. Certainly, as one professor complained to me recently about The Hunger Games, modern books lack symbolism and metaphor and grand literary themes. But to that I argued, so what? Why are grand literary themes more important than inspiring the imagination? And for that matter, why does it go without saying that graphic novels do not, or cannot, court the same grand themes? So I’ve come to conclude, in my not very professional opinion, that these so-called literary gurus, these professors of the bygone era, are FULL OF IT. It’s prejudice, plain and simple. Certainly, there are a great deal of crappy comics in the world, but an equal number of garbage novels too. Judging a story by its medium is like judging a person by his religion. It’s a conservative mentality, as it’s always the new kid on the block that has the most trouble fitting in. Only recently, film was granted art status by the high-brow community, following in the footsteps of newcomers expressionism, cubism, and surrealism; so it boggles the mind how Roger Ebert, champion of film, can deny video games the status of art (or of ever achieving that status!).
All mediums are equal. Only individual works can be judged for their merit. To prove the point, here are SIX comics worthy of everyone’s respect:
1. Watchmen by Alan Moore
Considered by many the most brilliantly conceived super hero story ever told, Alan Moore deconstructs the concept of the super hero, regarding the ethics of vigilantism, the implications to becoming a god, and asking what happens to real world events when super humans become part of it. There is symbolism here also, if one cares to look for it, like the streak of blood on the cover that forms the hand of a clock counting down to doomsday. Not long ago, Time Magazine had the foresight to include Watchmen in their list of 100 greatest works of literature, not greatest greatest comics, mind you, but literature as a whole.
2. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
Following in the footsteps of Watchmen, Miller dissects the classic hero in his retirement age, challenging our notions of right and wrong, as the world’s greatest detective struggles with his own beliefs in a changing world of moral ambiguity.
3. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
A religious cult imprisons the god of dreams. Without the power to dream, the world falls into chaos. Through personification and metaphor, Neil Gaiman examines how life, death and dreams affect the world, in often haunting ways. Incidentally, Gaiman has authored a number of non-graphic novels, and his American Gods is already regarded a modern classic.
4. All Star Superman by Grant Morrison
I have always loved Superman, and this comic explains why. In many ways the polar opposite of Watchmen, Grant Morrison gives us a Christ-like figure in Superman, a protagonist who stands as a role model for all humanity, challenging the notion that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
5. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Here’s an autobiographical comic about growing up in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Yes, you read that right. Comics can be about more than superheroes, and Marjane Satrapi proves it. While the artwork is minimal, the story is complex, inspiring, and often heartbreaking.
6. MAUS by Art Spiegelman
If I had to pick just one book on this list to showcase the value of graphic storytelling, this would be the one. In his father’s own words, Maus tells the story of the author’s father’s experience as a Jewish concentration camp survivor. I have watched movies and documentaries, and read books about the Holocaust, but none of them have come close to conveying the emotional impact, and sheer magnitude, of that event, like Maus has.