Are comic books literature? Should they be?
Why are we so obsessed with real books?
A beginning, middle, and end.
That's what makes a story a story. But then, what makes a story a piece of literature?
My origin story
During my BA in Literature, my professors had us analysing a wide range of books across time and space. We studied prose, poetry, and plays. I was always underwhelmed with the selection — simply because we rarely picked up books from this century, and I was already sick of the so-called "classics".
Whenever we were allowed to choose books for our papers, I immediately went for more contemporary releases. That's why my academic highlights were a paper exploring geocriticism and spatial theory in Ernest Cline's Ready Player One and a presentation on Harry Potter and fandom culture.
During my Master's, I took this one step further. For one of my papers, the professor said we were allowed to pick anything from the 19th Century to the present day as long as it had something to do with bodies. So I took the chance and ran with it to analyse Fullmetal Alchemist — a manga series instead of the lofty poems and archaic texts that were "recommended".
A couple of well-meaning friends asked if my professor would accept my choice. I was a little perplexed — why wouldn't she? It fit her parameters and checked every box.
"Because it's not real literature."
That's a fact. Graphic novels, comic books, and mangas aren't considered real books, forget "literature". They're given a hybrid classification and don't get enough recognition for being bookish works of art.
Some ridiculous reasons I've read from those who don't consider graphic novels and comic books as real books:
They're too easy to read — if you're not solving a mental puzzle every time you turn a page, is it even worth reading?
They're for children — because children's books have no meaning and depth to them, right?
They're not written "right" — apparently, the format bothers some folks. So how come poems and plays are "literature" then?
They don't have lasting artistic merit — I rest my case on Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series.
I guess if you don't put in your blood, sweat, and tears to imagine the events on the page, it's not a real book.
What's a real book anyway?
"Real books" or "real literature" is a concept that irks me to no end. Not because I care what's classified as literature. But because elitists use it as a way to shame those who like to read non-traditional books.
That's my biggest dilemma here. While I don't need comic books or fanfiction (two of my reading staples right now) to be inducted into the literature hall of fame, I still grapple with wanting to read what's conventionally accepted and applauded.
This comment by Reddit user @MinisterofOwls, who doesn't think comic books are literature, helped put it into perspective:
"....Everyone here is performing mental gymnastics to justify their geek fandom, so that comics will somehow be inducted into some kind of 'elite club' they have in their heads. Everyone wants to stick it to the snobs, even if it makes no sense.
Being considered 'literature' shouldn't be a badge of honour. 'My immortal' is literature. Mein Kampf is literature. Twilight is literature. Literature is not about quality. Should we consider a film with subtitles literature? Are all old-timey silent films with written pop-ups also lit?"
So the question is not whether or not comic books should be considered literature. It's why people don't want to accept that it's okay to read what you want — comic books, mangas, poetry, old-timey classics, YA novels, fanfiction, or whatever else.
Comic books and graphic novels follow the same trajectory as most literary books — they've got a beginning, a middle, and an end. The only distinction — pictures accompany the words in the book, and that is immediately what makes it unappealing to literature elitists.
What makes graphic novels so great anyway?
Good question. Why should you care about comic books and graphic novels being considered real literature?
Because they're worth reading.
Personally, anything worth reading is great and is "literature" to me, but I'm not too fussy about labels anymore. Otherwise, I could make a pretty strong argument for why fanfiction should also be considered literature.
Comic books and graphic novels are great for those who can't focus on long sections of prose, can't make heads or tails of poems (like me) or those who prefer a visual element to their stories. They're a great way to encourage someone to read and often act as a gateway to reading more intense books and traditionally-written novels. Reluctant readers usually love graphic novels, which is especially true for children, teenagers, and young adults.
According to Northwestern, "When students read visual narratives, the activity in the brain is similar to how readers comprehend text-based sentences. However, when students learn to read graphic novels with an analytical eye, depth and complexity are added to the reading process."
Often, graphic novels use their hybrid words x art form to make challenging topics accessible and simple for a broad audience. When you've got a page full of pictures and you've got limited space for words, you tend to be clear and concise. Of course, long, rambly sentences have their place, but I have so much appreciation for writers who get their point across with a few choice words.
So, whether or not you think graphic novels are literature, they're definitely real books and more than deserving of all the praise and attention they get.
In the mood for a graphic novel or comic book recommendation? I've got you covered. 📚
I've used comic books and graphic novels fairly interchangeably in this issue (because there’s a very thin, blurred line between them), but here's a quick guide:
Comic books — Feature recurring characters and continuing narratives. Marvel, DC, Archies, Tintin, Asterix, etc., would probably fall under comic books.
Graphic novels: These deal with more "intense" topics because they cover a single narrative from start to finish.
Mangas — Comic books and/or graphic novels from Japan. They have a very distinct art style.
Weekly faves! 💌
Netflix India finally got Palm Springs, and I watched it last week. I absolutely loved how they made the very overdone time-loop trope their own. Definitely worth a watch (and maybe even a rewatch). Andy Samberg & Christin Miloti have fantastic chemistry.
This track has been on repeat — what a great bop.
How to Deep Work: I've been quite curious about Cal Newport's concept of Deep Work, and it was nice to see someone show how they put it into practice to improve their productivity by reducing the time they worked (without compromising on quality).
I've always wondered how anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers began believing in their hair-brained conspiracy theories. This article explores why people fall for conspiracy theories — a fascinating read.
Finally, I leave you with a little bit of perspective:
Please tell a friend or two if you liked this edition of Perceptive Madness or buy a coffee to encourage me.
Don’t forget to heart the issue (right at the top or right under this). ❤️
See you next week!