The Question of Literature and Why Comic Books Deserve to be Classified as Such

How many books do you read a year?

This is a question that is frequently asked by voracious readers whenever they feel the need to see if a person is reading as much as they should be. It is also a question that is followed by a softened yet insecure response in which the secondary person replies by saying something like ‘I do not have any time to read’. To which the first person will respond by saying ‘well if you ever do have time be sure to check out’, and then they will proceed to list a number of books that themselves enjoyed. However, every once and awhile such a question is answered by a person who will say something like ‘I haven’t read any books but I have read a few graphic novels that I really liked’, and if the person who asked the question is ignorant to such things, which, let’s face it, most of the time they are, then that person will say something like ‘comic books aren’t really books’. And upon hearing such a response comic readers will immediately clench their fists and try with every ounce of strength not to unleash rage like Batman does whenever he is confronted with an oppressive foe. And yet despite this difference of opinion, an important question is nonetheless raised amongst the literary community and that is: are comic books considered literature, or, more specifically so, what constitutes a work- any work –to be considered as literary in the first place and what does the term “literature” really mean?

When Stephen King was awarded the National Book Award for his contribution to American literature a number of critics quickly came forth to express their disapproval in regards to the best-selling author’s work being placed in the same category as the great literary geniuses that came before him. Now their reasoning for this opinion revolved around the belief that genre writing like crime, horror, and fantasy does not possess the same posterity as literary fiction, and after hearing the claims for literary critics and scholars other writers immediately voiced their own thoughts and expressed that while everyone is indeed entitled their own opinion, Mr. King’s work is worthy of such classification and thus his work should be deemed as equally important as those who are considered great literary authors.

A similar stance was also taken when the comic series Watchmen was released in the 1980s. People were hesitant to believe that a comic book could contain literary elements, and yet as soon as new readers were given the opportunity to examine the comic’s themes, sequences, and ideas they quickly began to see that the American comic was something more than they previously thought it to be, and if Watchmen was capable of elevating itself into a more literary form writing, then it, as well as others like it, could also fulfill the criteria that classified certain books as literature.

However, a notable characteristic when assessing any art form is the skill that the writer or artist possesses. In essence, how well a book is perceived, how much depth and attention it gives to its characters, and the quality of the prose the author creates when he or she is writing. These are the traditional aspects of literary classification and yet they are neither mandatory nor binding, for novels like Point Omega by Don Dellilo, Freedomland by Jonathan Franzen, and science fiction epics like Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein do not necessarily have more attractive prose than writers like Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, and David Foster Wallace, and yet they are still considered to be literature. Why?

If one were to continue to break down the criteria by which books are classified as literature one would inevitably discover that they are assessed based on what the novels’ intentions are and what is attempting to say about the world, if it is in fact trying to say anything at all. The bookshelves are brimming with works that meet these criteria, but not only with novels but also within the realm of graphic novels as well. And the reason for this is not because of the inclusion of the greats like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, but also because of the overwhelming number of new comics that are being released with deep meaning and that include grand implications capable of rivaling the same themes and principles featured in novels by the great literary minds of today’s generation.

Take for example the book Y: The Last Man, a comic written by industry legend Brian K. Vaughn and artist, Pia Guerra. The story centered on the simple question of what would really happen to the last man on earth? The question, although briefly answered in other works, did not rise to the degree that was featured in Y and the reason for this came as a result of Mr. Vaughn and Mrs. Guerra thinking about the grander implications behind a question of this magnitude and sought to answer it in a way only great writers and artists could: with integrity and intelligence. Y: The Last Man was eventually met with overwhelming critical claim and was praised by writers who worked outside the comic industry as well, with Stephen King calling it one of the greatest comics he has ever read. Now, although Y: The Last Man is but one comic it still represents how comics have been gaining notoriety and emphasizing how artists can create stories that discuss contemporary issues and build narratives that are just as well conceived as anything else, and this does not stop with Y. Innumerable comics have been released that also fit into this category, some of which include: Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, The Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, and finally the high-intensity police drama featured in Gotham City, Gotham Central by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Michael Lark. These are just some of the many books that are set in the world of superheroes and provide stories that discuss highly relevant topics and challenge the status quo in the same ways that literary authors do.

They are the books trying to make a difference.

And if one were to analyze all the information provided in this article one would see that comic books are worthy to be treated as literature for they strive for the same goals as that which is set by other writers and artists, and whether people agree with this or not, it is impossible to deny that the books themselves are built on the same principles of creativity and ask the same questions to its readers: why and how? The goal of literature has always been to achieve posterity; the ability to create work that has the ability to last and sustain, and while comics do contain characters that are essentially guaranteed to accomplish such a task, the potential they possess is ever-changing, always building and always growing and hopefully, in the years to come, they will continue to do so and bring about bright changes to the industry and elevate the medium to a new level entirely.

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Jarrett Mazza is a writer and teacher living in Canada. He attended Wilfrid Laurier University and received an Honours Bachelor’s Degree in English and Contemporary Studies as well as a Bachelor of Education from the prestigious Schulich School of Education. He is now in the process of earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Vermont. He has been fascinated by superheroes and stories for as long as he can remember and studied comic book writing and sequential storytelling from industry professionals Ty Templeton and Andy Schmidt. When he is not self-publishing his own comic books, he is working on his thesis novel, submitting short stories to publishers, obsessing about geek fandom, and looking for new things to read and write.

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