I came to the realization that comics (the artform) and comic books (the format said artform often takes) were legitimate art and literature way back in the early 1990s when I was in high school. I don’t know what their reputation is by teachers today, but back then making that argument was an extremely futile effort.
Thankfully, Scott McCloud
released his masterpiece Understanding Comics
in 1993. That book did a fantastic job of explaining how the artform of
comics (not comic books per se) was indeed legitimate art; how it
worked; what it can do that other artforms can’t, and how all the subtle
nuances work. Comics may not be held to the same standard more
traditional artforms are by the artistic community, but their reputation
certainly has improved in the last few decades and McCloud’s book
probably had a lot to do with it. That book absolutely will stand the
test of time; if you haven't read it I implore you to get your own copy
It’s great that comics are at least considered “art” by
now, but are they considered “literature”? After all, comics do indeed
tell stories just like books and movies do. They can also be used for
autobiographies, education, and even journalism. If you’ve read comics
like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus,
and other non-superhero books that are considered masterworks, you know
this medium can be and is legitimate literature. The problem is there’s
only one book (as far as I can tell) making that argument: This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature by Rocco Versaci, PhD.
book was published in 2007, but I had not actually read it until this
past weekend. That’s ironic, because when I bought it I was very excited
about the possibility of it being on par with Understanding Comics.
Though, just a few pages into this book I realized it was not (not even
close, actually). I immediately recognized that this book was either a
dissertation and not intended for the layman, or was intended for the
layman but took a very dry, academic approach.
I was hoping
Versaci was going to point out how brilliant those aforementioned works
by Gaiman, Moore, et al, are and do so with the credibility of an
academic. Unfortunately, there is nary a Sandman reference
anywhere to be found. What Versaci concentrates on instead are
autobiographies; so-called “New Journalism” works in the form of comics;
holocaust memoirs and war comics as documentaries; and mainstream
literature adapted into comics form. The majority of the actual comic
books cited are obscure independent comics and graphic novels. The most
recognizable of these works is probably Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor; and even that is pretty rare for an independent comic.
Great critics are able to explain in layman’s terms why
a work is entertaining, well-made, what it has to say about life, and
why it’s important and significant artwork. But Versaci is not taking a
mainstream critic’s approach with This Book…, but as how a
professor would explain it to other professors. In order to comprehend
this material you probably need to be an English or Philosophy major and
familiar with schools of literary criticism
like “Post-Structuralism” (ugh! I always hated that material in
college). Therefore, the book is inherently dry since it’s not intending
to entertain the reader the way Understanding Comics does.
Though extremely well-cited, many of the sources are esoteric in nature.
I’ll be there are only a handful of people who will be familiar with
just the comics material presented here, let alone the non-comics
That’s the problem with literary criticism: unless the
reader is already familiar with the source material, the writer’s thesis
can be difficult to understand. Versaci does provide some visual
examples from the comics he writes about; however, showing only one
panel or even one page from a much larger work does not put the work
into context. And if it does, it’s just one example; you need to view
and read the entire piece to appreciate the point the [literary] critic
is trying to make.
This is the major hurdle all mainstream
critics and journalists of any medium face when trying to convey their
opinion to their audiences: they only have a finite amount of space or
time to show examples and then argue how they exemplify their opinion.
Imagine if you wanted to tell someone about your favorite movie and you
could only show them a single scene (or even a segment from a scene); is
it realistic for them to appreciate your enthusiasm by such a
relatively small example? Probably not. It's even worse when you're
trying to re-cap or criticize their review as I'm doing with this blog.
This Book Contains Graphic Language
is not the book I want it to be. As an academic dissertation about
literature – which just happens to be comics – it is well written, well
cited and well argued. As an educational and/or entertaining book for
the average comic book enthusiast it is entirely too stiff, sterile, and
stagnant to enjoy. It can be appreciated for its serious approach, but
probably not enjoyed as the literary equivalent of Understanding Comics.