Should Comics be Considered Literature?

By Zoe Maggs
Subedited by Charlotte Bale

Throughout history, comics have had a pretty hard time in the literary world. As Scott McCloud suggests, the art from has long been bruised by the opinion that they are nothing but “crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare”. It wasn’t until the late 60s, when the medium apparently shed its superhero skin and seemed to evolve into a new beast entirely – the graphic novel – that illustrated narratives came to be seen as more than just picture-books for children until they moved over to ‘real’ books.

It’s not just academics and serious readers who are ambivalent; comic-lovers themselves have been cynical over whether the medium can be considered literature. “Not graphic and not novel”, says one such fan, Giles Coren, in The Spectator. For Coren, ‘graphic novel’ is just a “po-faced euphemism”, used to tell comics they can join the club but they need to grow up, and they’ll never be as good as the novel.

Despite this resistance on both sides, the last few decades have seen many comics winning major literary awards, from the National Book Award for American Born Chinese, to the Pulitzer Prize for Maus; clearly, this points to a growing acceptance and thirst for the art form within the canon. However, certain genres of comics – the historical, non-fiction, or the political – are still favoured on syllabuses; we are yet to see the extensive, multiple-genre reading lists in schools that we see for ‘normal’ novels.

As is true for most of the arts, the digital revolution has enabled illustrated texts to gain more of an audience in recent years. In 2008, when comics studies were still a relatively new field, Dr Priego suggested that although many researching the medium were “paywalled”, facing financial barriers in terms of publishing their work, internet and blog sites like WordPress allowed him to develop a scholarly journal called The Comics Grid at little cost.

Such global collaboration has paved the way for comics to lose their label as the novel’s embarrassing cousin; the medium’s ability to tell age-old stories was exemplified when 130 illustrators seized the opportunity to adapt many classic works – from Shakespeare to Hemmingway – into three volumes of panelled narratives. However, this project may risk poking the literary bear; does its editor’s relaxed nature, being uninterested in “literal interpretation of the text into pictures”, preferring instead to let the artists “run with it” put the originals at risk of being ignored, misunderstood or forgotten?

Perhaps this is what literature-lovers have been concerned about all along, that comics, if allowed to ‘join the club’, may cause readers to lose interest in full-length novels. But it’s surely no secret that many young readers, for instance, have difficulties or may even dread studying revered texts from the greats at school. To young minds in today’s society – minds which are impressed regularly by high-definition, action-packed films and games (not to mention soon to be virtual realities) – it may seem out-dated or irrelevant to study a four-hundred-year-old play, or a three-hundred-page epic poem. Surely illustrated texts may be able to work with other literary forms, rather than against them, to pull more people into reading in general? Brigid Alverson’s article suggests this is exactly what happened in an American school library when comics were added to the shelves; visits increased by 87% and the circulation of non-comic books increased by 30% too.

Maybe Wordsworth would have cursed at the idea of comics as literature, as Paul Gravett’s article indicates, but Understanding Comics makes it clear that from Dickens’ novels to Hogarth’s satirical tracts, all the way back to the Bayeux Tapestry, illustrations have been used to convey narrative stories throughout history; comics as a medium for telling stories is not a new venture, but simply a matter of perception.

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