Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Comic Books As Literature

To kick things off, I am reposing a piece I wrote back in 2012.  It is a good overview of what I think of comic books and their impact on the pop culture.  It's a bit of a read, but I think you'll find it interesting.  Enjoy.
If you ever want to watch a bunch of nerds turn spastic and beet red, all you need to do is go to your nearest comic shop and state, "Comic books are not literature."  Mouths, rich with foamy spit, will spout phrases such as, "Sequential art," "Paleolithic age's cave paintings," "Hieroglyphics," and "Renaissance churches' pictorial narratives," in an attempt to put the illustrated tales into a larger historical context.  While it's true that mankind has told stories through pictorial representations for thousands of years, I'm not sure this fact, by itself, is enough to classify comic books as literature.

It IS undeniable that comics do enjoy a mass readership.  According to a *May, 2011 Facebook poll, 1,209,800 Americans identified themselves as "comic book readers."  These weren't all just little boys, with baseball cards and slingshots protruding from their back pockets, either.  304,700 (%25) of polled readers were women, and half the readers reported to be; married (186,700), engaged (42,740), or in a relationship (256,580).   Of course, these numbers don't include American readers who aren't on Facebook (there are a few, believe it or not), readers not willing to identify themselves as comic book readers, nor non-American readers.

Fiscally speaking, the **North American Comic Book Market (including sales of newsstand comics and graphic novels from bookstores) earned an estimated $660-690 million in 2011 alone, which is more than twice what the market reported in 1997.  By comparison, ***sales of non-comic books of fiction; novels, novellas, and short story collections; saw a 10.2% dip in sales, to $307.1 million, during the first half of 2011.   While E-Reader sales are undoubtedly a big part of the decline in sales of traditional books, the fact remains that the sales of comic books have begun to outpace the sales of traditional books.  Yet, just like their roots in history, sales numbers alone can't  define comics as a form of literature.

Surely though, we can't apply a single literary label to comic books, across the spectrum. When Marjane Satrapi wanted to chronicle her experiences growing up in Iran, during the Islamic Revolution, she chose to write the, now critically acclaimed, graphic novel, Persepolis.   Harvey Pekar, released his gritty no-holds-barred autobiography as a series of comic books called American Splendor.  The crime based father/son tale, Road to Perdition, had originally been published as a graphic novel.  These, and other thought provoking works, have been written for adults, and would unquestionably be considered literature if they'd been published within the standard book format.

Additionally, comic books come in a variety of genres.   We have funny comic books such as Archie, Goofy, Looney Tues, and Uncle Scrooge.  Horror comics, including Tomb Of Terror and Tales From Crypt, have been written to deliver chills to readers wielding flash lights beneath blankets.  Space fantasies, along the lines of; Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Star Wars; tease imaginations with tales of the final frontier, while crime comics satisfy more hard boiled appetites.  There are also war comics, western comics, educational comics (usually about historical figures or key battles in history), and we've seen a brief experiment with teen romance comics in order to attract a larger female readership.  On a, in my opinion, darker note, underground comics, which depict tales of; heavy drug use, binge drinking, and X-Rated content; have gained a small, but steady, following.

Be that as it may, when someone says, "I read comic books," more often than not, they're referring to colorfully illustrated stories of tight wearing do-gooders, who protect the innocent from the forces of evil. Put more simply, they're talking about superheroes.

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In 1938, Action Comics No. 1 first showed America a cape clad hero who ****"came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman ... who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!"

By 1940, Superman had his own radio series and newspaper strip.   This success paved the way for the 1941 debut of Batman, followed shortly by the unveilings of The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Hawkman, who all became icons for DC COMICS in their own right.  In response, smaller publishers began publishing their own superhero titles such as Captain Marvel, The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Phantom Lay, and The Spirit.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, heroes such as Captain America an Wonder Woman were created to fight fictional Nazis and increase public support for the war.

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Yet, it wasn't until the 1960s, when Marvel began publishing; The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and The X-Men; that the superhero genre began to dominate the pages of comic books.  One possible reason, which is often sited for the surge in the genre's popularity, is the fact that Stan Lee, and other Marvel writers, made a point to have their superheroes deal with real issues.  Peter Parker/Spiderman  was raised by a single guardian, Aunt May, and struggled with financial worries as well as typical teen dilemmas.  The X-Men fought the good fight against race prejudice, bigotry, and fanaticism, centered around the fictional mutant race "homo-superior."

Whether due to the increased quality, and relevance, of the content, or not, the fact remains that by 1970 superheroes ruled the comic book world.  While I can't find the specific ratio of superhero to non-superhero comic books, which defines today's market, *****American cartoonist, Scott McCloud has made the observation that the terms "comic book" and "superhero" are practically synonyms, due to the saturation of the genre within the medium.  This being the case, we're left with question, "Are illustrated superhero stories forms of literature?"

Perhaps the most persuasive argument in their favor is the impact comics have had on society and pop culture.  Via their wide circulation, as well as the multitude of; radio shows, movie serials, TV shows, feature length movies, toys, games, and clothes; these characters have been heavily woven into the fabric of everyday life.  Think about it.
  • Wen we get an uneasy feeling, don't we say, "Our Spider-sense is tingling?"  
  • When a specific substance causes an intense allergic reaction, many sufferers think of the substance as "their Kryptonite."  
  • The commonly used term cliff-hanger stems from the nail biting chapter endings to movie serials, which were spawned from comics.  Dale Arden or Lois Lane would end a chapter hanging from a cliff, or embroiled in some other mortal danger, and movie goers had to return the following weekend to find out IF they were rescued.  
  • During the recent Occupy Portland protest, protesters fashioned their own version of the Bat Signal in order to call like minded activists to action.
Yet, even given their impact on pop culture and our vocabulary, I personally consider comic books to be pieces of pop lit, rather than literature.  While the stories may occasionally address social issues, I'd wager good money that's not why most readers read comic books.  I think most readers, including me, read comic books to take a temporary break from reality.

We're not looking for War & Peace, or anything deep.  We want to see imaginative colorfully illustrated stories, in which our favorite good guys thwart (beat the poo poo out of) our favorite bad guys.  We just want to have some fun, and in the end, comic books ARE fun.

*Source = http://www.themarysue.com/comic-book-demographic/
**Source = http://www.comichron.com/yearlycomicssales.html
***Source = http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry
****Source = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adventures_of_Superman
*****Source = http://books.google.com/books
******Source = http://www.bluecorncomics.com/popicons.htm

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