Depending on who you ask, the answer to the question of whether comics are literature will you get will be a passionate yes, an emphatic no, or any number of combination between the two.
There can be no question that comics have the ability to impact a person as profoundly as any book – a powerful story will impact a reader no matter the medium. But then a powerful story can be told through music and movies, which are absolutely not considered as literary works, so the question remains are comics literature?
According to the Meriam-Webster Dictionary, literature is defined as:
a (1) : writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest
The key here is that Meriam-Webster have stated “writings in prose or verse,” and while comics do have the potential to have both prose and verse on a page – sometimes on the same page – they don’t need to have either, and in some instances the comic will have a wordless page used to a great effect. In the strictest sense, comics live in the grey area of the definition of the word literature, easily dismissed from, but just as easily included in the conversation.
Although it’s true that some comic stories published, whilst seminal works in their own right, won’t light the non comic world on fire. It’s also just as true that there are an abundance of comics (from numerous publishers) that are divisive many comic lovers wouldn’t give them the time of day, but they may be somebody else’s favourite comic that month. The same can easily be said about the book industry. Walk into any book shop and you will find strong opinions on books such as the Twilight Saga – a hugely popular and influential series that many deride because of the content. Not all books would be considered as literature by all people, just as not all comics should be considered as literature.
However comics, published in their current form, have been widely available since around 1933 – historians consider Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics published in 1933 by Dell Publishing as the first true American Comic Book – although there were collected editions of Sunday newspaper strips published before 1933, (Comic Monthly had a limited run ending in 1922), it wasn’t until Famous Funnies that comics began to print original material. The medium of comic books is still very much in it’s infancy compared to that of the book; as the years continue to roll by we will have more comics and graphic novels joining the pantheons of the literature greats.
There have already been several comic books and graphic novels that have won major literary awards, two of which; Maus, a Pulitzer Prize winner written and drawn by Art Spiegelman, is a harrowing account of the authors father’s experiences in Poland from before, and during, World War II. As a creative work, it exemplifies the power held within the medium of comics to juxtapose a harrowing tale with the use of anthromorphic animals depicting the different races (the Jews are mice, and the Nazi’s cats). The story of Spiegleman’s father isn’t directly told, but rather Maus recounts how the story came to be. If you read only one graphic novel in your life, it should be Maus. And Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen a Hugo Award winner in 1988, has been recognized in Time’s List of the 100 Best Novels as one of the best English language novels published since 1923. Watchmen is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic books of all time. It is a comic that both parodies and deconstructs the superhero genre; the themes are heavily layered and the book deserves multiple readings – both by new comics readers and by life time fans.
But are comics literature?
Although comics have aspects of – and have also won awards within – literature, they also enable many different methods of story telling, and have a unique position of allowing the potential to be held in the same light as the literary greats, indeed some comics are, whilst simultaneously transcending the traditional definition of the word literature into something else entirely. Something more than just a comic.
Can a comic stand beside To Kill A Mocking Bird? Should Alan Moore be spoken of in the same context as F. Scott Fitzgerald? Absolutely. A comic shouldn’t be disregarded from discussion of literature just because it’s a comic, but for the same reason a book would be: it simply isn’t any good.
So, one last time, should comics be defined as literature?
What do you think?