Comic Relief: Doing it Justice – The Comic Book as Literature



As the entertainment industry has shown us, comic books are a hot commodity. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, just as you shouldn’t judge a comic book by its lack of text. It is commonly thought that comic books offer no literary value and take away from the act of reading. While comic books do exhibit some literary attributes, it is important to take into account both sides of the argument.

Before I get to that, let’s make one thing clear: comic books and graphic novels are not the same thing. Sure, they both have quite a few pictures and varying amounts of words, but they are fundamentally different. I believe the confusion arises from the blurred line between what is a collection of issues and what is a standalone graphic novel. A graphic novel is basically a book that happens to incorporate words and pictures. Here are some examples: in Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, she recounts stories from her childhood with a significant amount of text, but includes illustrations with each story. The book itself is a complete thought, unlike comic books, which require multiple issues to construct a narrative. Generally what people see as “comic books” (and should be defined as such) are collections of the issues that form a particular storyline. Many collections will encompass consecutive issues, but some are more sporadic, only including issues pertinent to the narrative or theme of the collection. This column will most likely feature both genres, and I will make sure to hint at which one is being covered to avoid confusion.

Now that we understand the differences between the two genres, we can begin to think about them as a type of literature. As an avid comic book reader (I don’t read as many graphic novels), I can recognize the similarities between this emerging genre and the literary canon. I say “emerging genre” because of the overall popularity and publicity of the graphic novel and comic books. The wave of film and television adaptations of comic books contributes to this new movement. For example, a few of my friends were not very “into” comic books before the large wave of Marvel films and are now beginning to slowly make their way into comic book stores. Another component of what I feel pushes this movement forward is the continuation of television series and movies in comic form. The most notable examples include: Buffy the Vampire SlayerSerenity, and Star Wars (which are all coincidently published by Dark Horse Comics, two of which are Joss Whedon related).

The “new genre” has its pros and cons in regard to its literary value. In my travels among the stacks, I have discovered that quite a few titles contain allusions to Greek mythology, but most notably, Wonder Woman, who is, herself, an Amazon. It is a very entertaining exercise comparing the original myths to the comics that were inspired by them. If Greek mythology is not quite your “thing,” the comparisons to Norse mythology in Thor are also interesting, and dare I say, aggravating, but it’s all in good fun. Comics and graphic novels are also nice tools for identifying literary devices such as pacing, characterization, points of view, metaphor, and foreshadowing (of course these are only a few).

This all sounds great, but we need to be careful. Although comic books and graphic novels contain literary qualities, we have to remember what they are: comic books and graphic novels. A problem arises when we substitute traditional literature, namely books, with the “new genre.” The skills learned that help us dissect the “new genre” come from conventional literature. The two can live in harmony together, but first, the foundation must be built. This is why I am appalled when I hear that educators involved with students below the university level are using graphic novels to teach literature. I have no problem with students reading comic books and graphic novels, but the classroom environment is not the best place for them. The university level is different because most of us have already developed the reading comprehension necessary to unpack the conventions of comic books and graphic novels in an academic space.

On to the moment you have all been waiting for: what the heck is this column going to be about? If you have sat here this long, congratulations! You win the prize of knowledge! Drum roll please… In this column I will, in fact, be discussing comic books (mostly) and graphic novels! Assuming you paid attention at the beginning, this should not come as a shock to you. I will, however, be taking what I have learned from specific characters and heroes and sharing it with you in my own special way. I call this column Comic Relief, not only because it’s a cool pun, but also because as a college student, it is nice to read books with pictures in them every once and a while. With that said, I will leave you to your own devices. If you have any suggestions for the next posting, let me know in the comments section, for there are too many options to choose from. I want to talk about something you guys are interested in hearing about, otherwise, I’ll just pick whatever I want, and we’ll be stuck with that, got it? See you next time!

Written by: Gabriella Zeller

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