Comics, as a mass medium, still have an image problem
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this: “Yeah, I read comics as a kid, but haven’t picked one up in years.”
Or this…”why would I waste time on kid stuff.”
Or my favorite when I was criticized by some Princess Diana worship society for publishing a biography comic on their icon: “Comic means something to laugh at.”
After 80 years on the publishing stage, comic books are still looked at as fodder for juvenile audiences…or worse, the publishing equivalent to the ugly, red-headed step child. Too many people still consider comic books as men in tights beating bad guys or will Archie pick Betty or Veronica? Of course, there is plenty of that fare to go around, but the medium has expanded well beyond that. Now no one is going to confuse “Watchmen” (the 1986/7 graphic novel series) with “Sense and Sensibility” and no one is here to say that Niel Gaiman’s prose runs rings around that of F. Scott Fitzgerald (although Gaiman is an excellent writer), but, the overarching issue is that of perception. What makes a Dan Brown novel any more relevant and acceptable than that of Brian K. Vaughan’s “Ex Machina” or Cy Dethan’s “Cancertown?” I personally find Brown’s overly simplistic approach to be borderline juvenile, but yet he has an enormous following and mega-million dollar movie deals. Is it the artwork? Or is it the stigma that it can’t be important or taken seriously because it is a comic book?
Consider the case of Art Speigelman’s 1991 graphic novel Maus. It is a moving tale about the harrowing experiences of the author’s father as he tries to survive the Nazi Holocaust. It is told with gritty realism with the obvious exception that the Jewish characters are portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats. Does the presentation make this a kids book? Maybe as much as another book about the oppression of Stalinism in which the characters are barnyard animals. I speak, of course, of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One is a mostly forgotten graphic novel, the other is considered one of the 100 greatest novels (ranked by Time Magazine in 2005) of the 20th Century. Now I am not comparing the intrinsic value or artistic merit of these two books, but simply offering a parallel of allegorical presentation on important themes.
Now before I get too far off the rails, the majority of graphic novels feature superheroes, aliens bent on world domination and magical enchanted lands because they align themselves with a visual interpretation. But it doesn’t make them kid books either. Plenty of adults paid to see, “Iron Man,” “300,” “The Road to Perdition,” “The History of Violence,” “From Hell,” “The Mask,” “The Crow,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “30 Days of Night” (the genre has generated over $16 billion in ticket sales), but somehow draw the line over accepting the source material.
In the past 20 years comics have grown up. They have approached characters and topics with a more sophisticated eye. Sex and violence aside, they have broached racial, political, societal and other relevant and important themes. Just off the top of my head, Iron Man battled alcoholism, another Marvel character, Northstar was portrayed as openly gay, Green Arrow is morally-ambiguous, and “Scalped,” by Jason Aaron dealt head-on with the abortion issue. But more than these individual story elements, the overall tone of books evolved in psychological complexity. Characters are no longer stereotype paragons of justice and the American way. They are flawed and interesting…just as you would find in a Jonathan Franzen or James Patterson novel.
The comic book landscape is becoming more diverse and less about the mighty man from Krypton. However, comics have been niche marketed; painted into a corner and typecast, despite some truly remarkable literary efforts. Yet there is something for everyone. Sure if you prefer your Knight dark and your Lantern green, there will always be a staple of titles to enjoy. It is, and will probably remain, the bread in which the industry is buttered, but there is a growing community of innovative creators out there who are publishing graphically presented work that is worth reading and worthy of discussion with other contemporary popular fiction titles.
If you’re one who hasn’t picked up a comic book or graphic novel in years, I issue this challenge. Pick one up and read it. If you can’t decide which one to read, email me and I’ll make a few suggestions. Afterwards, if you still think it’s kid stuff or creative white noise, I will concede the point. But I’d like to think that this opportunity will open a new avenue of appreciation for an alternative medium of storytelling and possibly expand your reading list.