Are comics literature?
This article first appeared in issue #37 of Writer’s Block, a publication of the English Department at the University of Amsterdam.
Can we read comics as literature? Should we? Should we use terms like graphic novel? I had written six hundred words in answer, all while looking down the slope of my nose, when I hit a wall. I didn’t know what to write next, because my six hundred words were not my six hundred words. They were an academic imitation of expertise in a medium I have only just begun to enjoy and analyze. I was projecting authority in quarters where I had none, and I could not stretch the ruse into the requisite length. So I threw it all away and began afresh, and here we are.
I’m Brian Warshaw, and I began reading comics in 2013 in the excitement leading up to Warner Brothers’ attempted revitalization of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel. I was thirty years old at the time, and with the exception of a Spider-Man/Wolverine mash-up, I had never read a comic book. I enjoyed watching superheroes on the silver screen, though, so it was hardly a tough sell when a friend recommended that I check out Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s seminal Kingdom Come from the local library. I took his advice, read the book, and began a five-year odyssey of voracious consumption and—these past several years—extensive critique and analysis in a few online publications.
Kingdom Come is a great place to begin a conversation on whether or not comics are literature, because it is both an exceptional example of the literary excellence possible in the medium and a highly specialized form of comic book that breeds—by its very virtues, in fact—gross misunderstanding about what comics are and how we process them.
If you’ve never read the book, it is essentially a tale of the old guard—principally Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—saving the world once more—this time from the threat of their “heroic” successors. Waid writes a great deal of profound narration throughout, and the story as a whole pokes at some weighty themes of real-world significance. Meanwhile, Ross—in his trademark style—paints the entirety of the story’s artwork, achieving a level of photorealism in his characters that seldom graces the pages of a comic book. If we see Waid’s eloquent words as the realization of the literary power of the medium, then Ross is a fitting counterpart, obliterating the four-color abstractions for which superhero comics were known for most of the decades between Superman’s 1938 debut in Action Comics and the release of Kingdom Come in 1996.
I was blown away. This isn’t what comics looked like when I was a child. This wasn’t melodrama and third-rate artists who couldn’t make a person look like a person. This was serious comics, and all of the other stuff was not.
I now had an appetite that required feeding. Nothing was quite like Kingdom Come in terms of the sheer quality of its component parts, but I was able to find artwork that I enjoyed from names like Jim Lee, Jason Fabok, and a handful of others. I tolerated what I considered lesser art when the writing was verbose and literary, in books like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman.
As I read more and more, my aesthetic walls—both visual and verbal—began to crumble. Early in my tenure as a critic at the website Batman News, I read a book called Batman: Unseen, written by Doug Moench, with line art (the artwork before the color is added) by Kelley Jones. As I finished reading, I sat down to draft a review, fully-prepared to excoriate this waste of paper and the publisher who had seen fit to foist such drivel upon the public. You see, Moench’s dialogue was too over-the-top, and Jones’s character stylings were ludicrously theatrical. This was the anti-Kingdom Come, or so I thought.
A funny thing happened as I wrote that review: I found that I did, in fact, like the book. I didn’t understand why someone would write such antiquated poetics for a character like Batman, and I certainly didn’t understand why Jones drew such oddly-shaped, oddly-posed characters. But as I read, re-read, and attempted to make an honest analysis of the book, I realized that these elements were actually charming; more than that, I found that they were what gave the book its identity, its character—they were a vital part of the storytelling.
Comics are not written works. They can, and often do, contain written elements, but they are not, in their entirety, written works. Kingdom Come is not “Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come”. Comics are not paintings or drawings, either. They certainly contain enough of them, but this is not what they are. “Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come” doesn’t work either—it isn’t a collection of paintings. Like prose and painting, comics tell stories, but the reason we categorize them separately from those two media is that the storytelling tools are not the same. Prose uses words for everything—to build an image in the reader’s head, to convey emotion, to elapse time. Paintings and drawings are entirely visual, implying what they cannot speak through context, posture, and expression. The verbal and the visual come together in comics, but it isn’t two separate things riding in parallel. It isn’t two complementary-but-separate stories. It is the interplay of those words and those pictures, the two working together as cohesively as they can to communicate in their union what they could not in isolation. If it is in the mingling of these elements that we ultimately find the story—the real story—then we should be evaluating that union. If we come to a particular comic expecting to be moved by words, and we are not moved by words, we may conclude that it is a poorly-written comic. If we come to that comic expecting a unique, dazzling visual aesthetic, and we do not find it, we may conclude that it is a poorly-drawn, bland comic. Every comic is a poorly-written, poorly-drawn comic if we evaluate it as something it is not.
So: are comics literature? It depends on what you mean by the question. I think some people mean are there comics that feature exemplary prose and dialogue? The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. But the question belies a misunderstanding of the medium. The one asking it is looking for something that a comic is not principally interested in providing. It may provide it as a means to its ultimate end, but a comic is not a peddler of words, and it would be rather a poor one if it were, what with the constant intrusion of images, written sound effects, and panel borders on finely-crafted prose. I said that the question belies a misunderstanding of the medium, but perhaps the very fact that one would ask such a question—that he would seek in comics what he can find in greater quality and concentration elsewhere—reveals the deeper suspicion that comics have something more to offer. Without the experience or terms to articulate what that something is, they just wrap their desires in the blanket of literature and ask if comics can fulfill them.
Comics can scratch that itch, and often with more potency than we realize. Often, we feel that satisfaction before we fully understand it. Given a book with artful dialogue and narration, we may conclude that it is the writing that satisfies us—it’s great literature. We could draw similar conclusions about the artwork if it has a gripping aesthetic quality. Both of these conclusions, however, assume that there is nothing special about comics that makes a comic special. We are no longer talking about a medium, but rather a box that holds several.
But comics can do things that writing and artwork cannot by themselves. Comics can control the pace at which we absorb them. A small number of words can occupy several pages. A set of uniform panels can march us through a sequence methodically, while a full one or two-page spread can slam on the brakes and press us to dwell a while longer on the scene before us. Tight perspectives can make a scene feel claustrophobic, but a character whose figure pops out above panel borders can suggest power and independence. Word balloon layout and placement can make a speech shoot by in a mumble, or start, stop, and stutter across several points in a panel or page. Comics use words and art as ingredients, but variation in those ingredients, as well as their measures, and the ways in which they can be combined—this is the essence of comic book storytelling. This is why I can harbor disdain for the aesthetic qualities of a book like Batman: Unseen and at the same time greatly enjoy reading it. Its aesthetic ingredients are, by themselves, distasteful to me; but as parts of a whole, they help create a blend that works rather well. This is very much like my relationship to carrots and carrot cake!
The most valuable thing I’ve learned as a critic is when not to be one. Understanding those things that contribute to our enjoyment of the arts is valuable insight, and we are right to pursue it. But for us to ask why, there must be a what. If we want to understand why we like one thing and not another, we must first know what we like and what we do not like! Instead of asking if comics are literature, try picking one up and seeing if you enjoy it. Find a story that you think is worth reading, whether it contains superheroes, bored insurance salesmen, or talking lions. Take a chance—read it. Enjoy it. There will be time to analyze later, to make sense of why your soul was stirred. But in the meantime, let yourself be stirred. Let a voice that you do not understand tell you things about yourself that you do not know until you find them in the pages of the strange, beautiful music of comics.