Comics Isn’t a Dirty Word

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“Oh, I don’t read comic books.”

I hear this painfully often working at a bookstore. While comics aren’t a genre like science fiction, fantasy, mystery or romance, they are often ghettoized in the same way as “genre fiction” in the minds of readers. Especially as a fan of the medium (and a fan of genre work, for that matter), it hurts to hear this opinion thrown around.

The fact is, comic books and graphic novels have a ton of supporters in the critical realm. Time magazine called Alan Moore’s Watchmen one of the greatest English-language novels written since 1923. Neil Gaiman, winner of the prestigious Newbery Medal for his writing (along with Hugos, Nebulas, Geffens, and myriad other awards), practically made his name writing the Sandman comic at DC. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus won a Pulitzer in 1992, and Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer nearly a decade later for his comic-centric Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.  Time named Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home the best book of 2006, and Junot Diaz  (the most recent recipient of the Pulitzer for fiction) has some strong words for people who put comics below other literature.

So why the disdain?  Why are comics still looked at as a “lesser” form of writing than any other prose?  Granted, there are a lot of badly written, beefcake, hackneyed comic books.  But isn’t that true of any other genre of writing, from literary fiction to screenwriting to history books?  Comics are only affected by Sturgeon’s Law as much as any other work.

Perhaps part of the distaste is a holdover from the opposition to comics in the 1950s, some sort of cultural gut reaction.  In his 2008 book The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu discusses the outright war many people waged on comic books.  Scores of parents and teachers burned piles of comics, and some towns passed laws to outlaw the books.  Comics were bought mostly by children, and looked down upon by adults as a cause of juvenille delinquency and crime.  While critics in the government began congressional inquiries into the world of comics, professional literary voices railed against “a wild, homegrown form of vernacular American expression.”  While the outright attack on comics eventually withered with the rest of McCarthyism, the idea that comics are “low” art and corrupt young readers has survived.

Of course, some people just think that drawings with word balloons can’t (or shouldn’t be) taken as seriously as prose.  Strangely enough, writers don’t seem to be the ones holding this view.  Junot Diaz, author of  The Brief  Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, certainly thinks comic creators deserve the same recognition as other authors;

It’s an interesting thing. I think this kind of mashup between high and low culture is good, but I don’t want anybody to hide the privilege and the power that one has over the other. Michael Chabon writes a book about comic books and everyone’s on his jock, but Michael Chabon is never going to be competing with the poor guy who’s writing Sinestro Corps for an award of high literary merit. And I’m like, “Why not?”

There are superhero comic books – and I know people will laugh at this – there are superhero comic books that are as strong as the literature that’s given awards! There’s just this kind of bias against these people being on the same fuckin’ award table, you know?

For me, it is one of the great American forms, and I think it should be treated like that. It shouldn’t be treated like a shiny coat or a shiny costume that we put on when we want attention. I think it should be recognized and acknowledged as part of the literary vocabulary that we have been playing with for the last hundred years.

Fellow Pulitzer-winning writer Michael Chabon certainly agrees – most of his essays in his recent book Maps and Legends discuss his love of comics and genre fiction.

Now I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but I just want to say that it is OK to read comics if you’re an adult.  Comics is not a dirty word.  As the guys at Around Comics and iFanboy have said, the writing in comics right now is as good as it has ever been.  If you’re a fan of comics, read them and do it proudly.  If you still think comics just aren’t for you, I beg you to give them a shot – there are graphic novels covering every genre from memoir to fiction to current affairs.

Who knows how many new favorite stories you’re missing because you’re sure they aren’t for you?


2 responses to “Comics Isn’t a Dirty Word

  1. Totally agree! Some of the best fiction of the last 20 years was in comics. Moore’s run on Swamp Thing–genius. The Invisibles–genius, genre-pushing, mind-breaking stuff. Shade the Changing Man–genius. Promethea–incredible. I mean, you know this list could go on and on.

    Non-fiction, too. I think a lot of comics non-fiction gets overlooked because it’s hard to shelve–but the graphic bio of Emma Goldman, Clan Apex, etc–I wish they could get more attention from schools. They are seriously awesome.

    I find that in my store, because the main audience is young and urban, there isn’t really disdain for the medium, because it is very cool to know about graphic novels. However, capes-n-tights really doesn’t fly (sorry for pun) at all. Which sucks. I’m trying to push Scott Pilgrim right now, we’ll see if it is cool enough or not.

  2. This is a great post and a big topic of conversation around the bookstore where I work as well. I’ll fess up right now that I used to be one of those snobs who didn’t think of comics/graphic novels as having equal literary value to other formats, but because many of my intelligent, intellectual, well-read coworkers love them, I’ve decided to give them a shot. Watchmen is going to be my first graphic novel, sometime in the next couple weeks.

    Thanks for bringing to light a conversation that more readers should be aware of.

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