LIT 501: The Proper Reading of Comics

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

When I wrote “I Expected Batman and Robin, Not Pornography,” I was preaching to the choir. Panels is a site inhabited by comic readers who love education and have learned to think critically. We take our scholarship seriously. Many of us have spent countless hours in the ivory tower; some of us are still there; and most of us got a little chuckle wondering, “Who signs up for higher education and gets offended by adult content in a literature course?” It’s hilarious, isn’t it?

Most readers were in on the joke.

Until our rant was derailed by someone asking whether comic books belonged in college education and asking why they wouldn’t use proper books.

What are we doing here, if not demonstrating that comics are proper books?

They have pages and words, plot and characters, theme and tone and voice and style and foreshadowing and nuance and rising action and climax and denouement and great courage and great cowardice and love and hatred and brutality and nobility and sacrifice and betrayal. Comics differ from “proper” books only in their graphic element. Every essential of great novels exists in great comics, plus you can also have great artwork. There is more to analyze and deconstruct when you add the layer of visual narrative.

Is your perception of comics based on some hazy pre-Watchmen era notion of funny books for kids? The Comics Code did strip meaning and nuance from stories, resulting in watered down pap suitable for the simplest readers (e.g. Batman and Superman both have rebellious teenage sons, who they are raising together, ineffectively). That’s what you get when you castrate an entertainment industry and force-create a world where good is always beautiful and always triumphs over evil, which is always ugly and without merit or explanation. No genre thrives under censorship.

But we are not studying those comics at the college level. We are studying great works—Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home—mind-blowing, intelligent, provocative stories that work with or without pictures, that stand beside some of the best text-only memoirs I’ve ever read. Complex and deep, full of life and death moments, dawning realizations, powerful passions, and destructive secrets, they comprise the elements of great literature. Art Spiegelman’s struggle to comprehend his father won a Pulitzer for a reason: it speaks in a deep and honest voice about the human experience. We may not have all survived impossible odds and relentless trauma, but who among us hasn’t suffered a difficult relative? This first person Holocaust narrative is no less powerful than Elie Wiesel’s Night, and for many readers, far more accessible.

When Jean Loring makes a terrible decision in Identity Crisis, her moral failure and the pain of those around her carry no less impact because characters wear costumes to fight crime. When Thanos tries to impress the girl in Infinity Gauntlet, only to learn that you can’t force someone to love you, his revelation is universal. It doesn’t matter that the guy realizing it is purple and immortal or that the girl is Death. Thanos isn’t doing anything a billion real guys in love haven’t tried. Every single day, actual human beings make the same choices as Jean Loring and Thanos. We know their pain; we know what we’ve done for love. We read these stories for the same reason we read great novels. We like magic and technology, which help guide readers in, but once they’re here, it’s the raw, unvarnished, resonant truth that matters.

Neil Gaiman didn’t write Sandman to spoon up some fanciful confection wholly unconnected to our hard reality. He was writing about what is truest and most beloved by the human race, and the visual and fantasy elements of the story only heighten the impact of the message. He harnessed the full power of the graphic medium and showed us the power of our own dreams.

That is why we read, analyze, criticize, study, discuss, dissect, and teach comics. That is why comic scholarship belongs at the university level.

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