Comics = Art (?)

Me: *sitting in the staff room reading a comic book*
Co-worker: Oh, is that a comic book? 
Me: Yeah, it’s actually a—
Co-worker: That’s so cute. My son loves Captain America
Me: *awkward silence*

As an adult fan of comic books and graphic novels, I’ve had this conversation more times than I’d care to count. Comic books have come a long way since the days when Superman was throwing cars at bad guys and yet the number one question I get about comics is “aren’t those for kids?” 

Back when the medium became a thing, comics were indeed something designed and mostly marketed for kids. The pulp graphic novels such as The Phantom, The Shadow, and Doc Savage; and the Sunday strips like Archie and Family Circus were designed to appeal to the idealistic black-and-white morals that are so easy for kids to understand.

The thing is though, comic books have grown up quite a bit. Despite the ongoing debate about whether this is a good thing or bad thing, comic books today are an incredibly diverse medium which has expanded from the standard superhero fare into a vibrant and multifaceted art-form—from mainstream series like Batman, Superman, and the X-Men to creator-owned titles such as the gender-bending Sci-Fi retelling of Homer’s epic in Ody-C and the fantasy western Pretty Deadly, a story about Death’s daughter.

And yet, it seems that comic books—and the wider graphic medium as a whole—get relegated to second tier status when involved in discussions of artistic achievement and literary merit. No matter what the book is or the story being told, it would appear that accompanying words with pictures is a major taboo when vying to be considered art.

The foil to my view of comics became blindingly obvious when I sat with a friend and listened to him tell me why my preferred literary medium and one of my greatest passions was “not art.” The crux of the argument was that while, yes, comic books do display a tremendous amount of “technical” achievement, the visual medium takes away from the power of the literary devices and storytelling tools available, removing subtlety and complexity from the story.

As I sat there trying to formulate a response to his argument, it struck me: the problem comic books have in connecting with a wider audience seems to be twofold. On the one hand, the graphic medium still carries the legacy of its forefathers—funny strips and books that were originally created for children. But the other hand gets more complex; the way we view comics today is still held back by the tools we use to analyze them. Think about it. We’ve spent centuries perfecting and studying literature and art forms such as painting, sculpture, theater, and even, more recently, film. Entire fields-of-study have been created to analyze, interpret, parse, and deconstruct these art forms and we have become—at least subjectively—very good at understanding the way we understand art. The graphic medium, being a relative newcomer, hasn’t been given the chance to be really considered art because we haven’t developed a real way to study it the way fields like literary or film theory have.

It’s taken me a long time to realize why people look at me funny when debating the graphic medium’s artistic merit, but it dawned on me this past week that there were many times in my life that I, too, had the same doubts and questions about the medium as a whole and its place in the arts. In fact, one of my first problems with reading comics came with the very first one I read as an adult: Neil Gaiman’s seminal series The Sandman.

The story about the lord of dreams sprawled over ten collected editions, Gaiman’s Sandman was my gateway drug; the psychedelic and many times awe-inspiring art and layouts, the subtle coloring and abundant references to mythology and folklore were hard to get out of my head. And yet, the first time I read it, there are few things I could have remembered outside of the textual narrative. I had made the same mistake many people make when first reading comics and, though I had loved reading the book itself, I told myself the story was a bit weak and conceited. My problem? In my intense focus on the words on the page, I literally blocked out the rest of the story; when I read it again years later, I became struck by subtle details I’d missed before, like how Morpheus—the king of dreams and the protagonist—always wears clothes that match the time period and place he’s visiting or the simple visual references in every issue that ties the larger universe of Sandman together.

And there’s the problem: when we read comic books, we’re not simply looking at words on a page, or just pretty pictures, or just a beautiful layout. We are viewing a complete work which require us to examine all the parts, and then how those components interact with one another.

But back to Sandman. Even though I fell instantly in love with the story and the potential of comics, I began to realize that Gaiman’s writing maintained some of its literary roots—much like his novel American Gods, the text is littered with plays on words and verbal flourishes in his dialogue—and yet seemed on the whole more on-the-nose than his prose work. I moved on from Sandman loving the verbal part of comics, but still unaware of the wide world of, well, everything else.

The next comic I read that forced me to look away from the words on the page was Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s cyberpunk masterpiece Transmetropolitan, the story of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque reporter named Spider Jerusalem in a 23rd century megalopolis aptly named “The City.” Ironically, the story focuses on the power of words and Ellis can go on a bit with dialogues and monologues, but Robertson’s schizophrenic art and over-the-top illustration style forced me to look at the full page for the first time. Like in Issue 3, Spider is reporting on a riot that has been instigated by nefarious types, and as he’s writing his story, Darrick Roberston gives you a first person view of the chaos; the cops literally crushing a kid’s skull, a fire bomb going off. It’s impossible not to see it and the impact is immediate.

The result? I could see The City come alive, warts and all. Ellis’ writing style does away with many of the literary tools normally used in prose: the narrator is happy to remain in the background, and outside of “articles” included in the story, the plot is driven by dialogue. Even so, I could see something bigger. The metaphors had become cleverly illustrated pages, or a well-positioned panel, a forced perspective.

All of the sudden I realized that the words are not simply enough, and neither is the art. Without one, you have choppy dialogue, and without the other an oddly creepy story about a dude who walks around naked a lot and a weird looking version of New York City. But put them together, and Spider Jerusalem becomes a strangely prophetic vision of where we’re headed as a society.

I can see why it’s easy for people to dismiss graphic literature as inferior. The tools we have to analyze it tell us that it’s an incomplete medium: the writing lacks the subtlety of prose, the art is too stylized, or too simple, or too “campy,” the stories can’t possibly be that profound. But to rank graphic literature as just “literature,” or just “art,” is to misunderstand it as its own medium. The writing is subtle in different ways; the medium must use different literary devices with less real estate to work with. The art is not inferior, but must seamlessly blend action, dialogue, and visual narrative. The combination of both must be perfect, or we easily break our immersion. It’s time we give this graphic medium credit. It has survived its infancy, and as it becomes a more ingrained part of the mainstream, it demands the same respect we give its older siblings. I have a feeling I’ll keep having to defend it for some time, but I hope that everyone discovers what I’ve known for years—that comic books freaking rule!

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