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Recognition and Hybridity of Art or Comics as Literature?

Recognition and Hybridity of Art or Comics as Literature?
© Photograph by Christian Rivera

Not all comics are art. Like film and photography, the medium can and often is used to make art, but it can also be used in non-artistic ways. Various examples of instructional comics plausibly fall outside the sphere of art. I would suggest that the same is true of some, but not all, pornographic comics (e.g. Tijuana Bibles). If you are not happy with those examples of non-art comics, I suspect that you will be able to generate your own cases.

What about the comics that are art? For instance, Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’, Franklin Christenson Ware’s ‘Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth’, Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis’, and Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ strike me as pretty clear examples of comics that fall into that category. What sort of art are they? In particular, are comics a form of literature? They are, after all, typically full of text, commonly found in bookshops where they are often sold in book form under the “Graphic Novel” heading, appreciated (at least in part) by means of reading, taught in literature classes, occasionally discussed in academic journals devoted to literature, and often reviewed in the book review sections of newspapers and magazines. For these reasons — as well as some others that I shall discuss below — it is tempting to think that at least some comics are literature.

Such a view would be tendentious. There is a significant strain of thought that rejects the “comics as literature” view. And although some reasons for resisting that view are misguided, I shall argue that there are other good reasons for being hesitant about treating comics as a form of literature. This leaves us in an impasse — we have reason both to classify comics as literature and to resist such classification. I shall suggest that the way out of this impasse is to recognize that comics are a hybrid art form that evolved from literature and a number of other art forms and media. The hybrid nature of comics helps explain a wide range of relevant phenomena, and underwrites the very impasse about comics’ literary status that I have described.

The recognition of the hybridity of the art form also sheds light on a number of theoretical and critical issues that lurk under the surface of the apparently straightforward question about categorization. Given the wealth of serious academic and critical work on literature — and the dearth of such work on comics — the question of whether comics are literature is especially significant since a positive answer would legitimate the application of the philosophy of literature, literary theory, and literary criticism to works in that medium. In fact, I shall argue that once we have recognized that comics are a hybrid, we no longer need to determine whether the category of literature includes comics in order to apply what we know about the former to the case of the latter. Unsurprisingly, some theorists reject the idea that comics are a hybrid. I shall argue that they are mistaken.

Let me attempt to forestall an objection before I get to the main concerns of this paper. It might be thought that the categorial issue I concern myself with is not as significant as the question of whether any comics “possess the kinds of values that the great works of literature possess”. That is surely an important question, and although it would require an entirely separate essay in order to address it properly, it is worth saying a bit about it here.

On a straightforward reading of the question, the answer is clearly “yes”. Some comics possess some of the kinds of values that great literary works possess. For example, most great works of literature are similar to other great works of art in being creative, original, well-structured, and unified. All of these values are exhibited by certain comics. Robert Dennis Crumb’s drawing manifests a stunning degree of visual creativity — he has been described by the art critic Robert Studley Forrest Hughes as “the Brueghel of the 20th Century”. ‘Maus’ is original in its use of drawings of anthropomorphized animals to tell the story of the Holocaust. Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ is precisely and effectively structured. Chris Ware’s works typically exhibit a remarkable degree of thematic and design unity. And so on.

Presumably the more significant question is whether any comics possess the kinds of values that are especially important in great literature; for example, being well-written, having depth of characterization, exhibiting what Peter Vaudreuil Lamarque terms “moral seriousness” in tackling “humanly interesting themes”, and being well-plotted (if they are narrative in form). Are there well-written comics? Insofar as this is linked to uses of language that are appropriate to overall artistic ends, then Harvey Lawrence Pekar’s autobiographic dialogue in his ‘American Splendor’ strips plausibly fits the bill. Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ is, as Douglas Wolk argues, largely concerned with the way in which the author comes to understand herself and her family through works of literary fiction, and it manifests this concern in rich language and the use of a variety of literary tropes. And although many comics lack a depth of characterization and much in the way of character development, this is not always the case. Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels (‘Persepolis’ and ‘Persepolis 2’) are full of rich characterization, and Jeffrey Brown’s ‘Unlikely’ explores the first relationship in painstaking detail. What about moral seriousness? Do any comics tackle those humanly interesting themes? Certainly, ‘Maus’ does, but it is not the only comic that does so. Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ addresses issues of moral responsibility. Christenson Ware’s work addresses loneliness and alienation. Rosemary Elizabeth Simmonds deals with love, sex, and social relations in her literary-influenced ‘Tamara Drewe’. Jessica Abel’s story of a naïve young American woman in Mexico, ‘La Perdida’, deals with the dangers of self-deception. And George Joseph Herriman’s ‘Krazy Kat’ strips brilliantly tackle the tragedy (and potential comedy) of unrequited love. Moreover, these themes need not be merely superficially addressed as Lamarque and Olsen suggest is the case when perennial or universal themes appear in non-literary fiction.

The best comics — ones like those mentioned above — develop their themes. That is, readers are not simply confronted with clichés — they are encouraged to work out themes, contemplate them, and make sense of the comics in light of them. Finally, careful and intelligent plotting is a central part of many of the best comics. As a reviewer of Tamara Drewe in The Times Literary Supplement put it: “its single most impressive attribute is the brilliant management of what would be termed, in a purely literary context, the plot”.

As is made plain by this last quote, the reader need not rely solely on my testimony about the values to be found in comics. There are, for example, the various art and literary awards that comics and comics artists have received in recent years. ‘Maus’ famously won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. In 2005, two critics for Time magazine named ‘Watchmen’ as one of the top 100 English Language novels published since the magazine’s founding, and the graphic novel also won a Hugo Award in 1988. Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home’ was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and Time named it one of the ten best books of 2006. Ware’s ‘Jimmy Corrigan’ won the 2001 Guardian First Book Award and an American Book Award. American Book Awards were also given to Gary Panter’s Jimbo’s ‘Inferno’ and Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’. Gene Luen Yang’s ‘American Born Chinese’ was a finalist in 2006 for a National Book Foundation’s National Book Award. Ben Katchor, author of ‘Julius Knipl, ‘Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District’ was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (i.e. a “Genius Grant”) in 2000.

And although, as I have suggested above, there is something of a dearth of serious criticism of comics, there is evidence for the significant value to be found in some comics in some extant examples of criticism. Goethe famously praised Rodolphe Töpffer’s picture stories which were, on some accounts, the earliest comics. The essayist and critic Gilbert Seldes’ defence of comics in general, and ‘Krazy Kat’ in particular, in his ‘The Seven Lively Arts’ (1924) is fairly well known: “With those who hold a comic strip cannot be a work of art, I shall not traffic. The qualities of ‘Krazy Kat’ are irony and fantasy […]. It happens that in America irony and fantasy are practised in the major arts by only one or two men, producing high-class trash; and Mr Herriman, working in a despised medium, without an atom of pretentiousness, is day after day producing something essentially fine.”

Much of the contemporary criticism of comics to be found in English appears in newspapers. In the United Kingdom, The Guardian regularly covers graphic novels in its Saturday Review section. In the United States of America, the New York Times semi-regularly reviews graphic novels. In 2002, Nick Hornsby published a review of a number of graphic novels in The Times, and more recently Douglas Wolk has been reviewing them there and in other venues. Moreover, these reviews, and those by other well-known authorities on the subject such as Paul Gravett and Roger Sabin, amount to more than reports of preferences. This is fully fledged criticism — albeit in a compact form. Here, for example, is Hornsby on Kim Deitch’s recent graphic novel The Boulevard of Broken Dreams: “[H]is drawings are comparable to R. Crumb’s in their feverish, angry energy […] and come as something of a shock after the clean lines of his younger colleagues. But his experience and sophistication allow him to do things that the youngsters are not yet capable of: ‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ is full of metaphor and imagery that shift meaning, flashbacks and flash-forwards and a bagful of tricks that give the book heft. What is particularly impressive is the way that Deitch juggles the personal — his artist hero is plagued by a cartoon demon that simultaneously inspires and destroys him — and the cultural dimensions of his narrative: his book is just as much about the neutering and Disneyfied cation of animation as it is about the self-destructiveness of genius.”

The reader may have noted that I have said little in defence of superhero comics to this point. That is no accident. I do not believe that mainstream superhero comics typically possess much in the way of substantive literary value(s). There are exceptions of course — superhero comics by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison among others do possess some of the values that I have discussed above. But for the most part superhero comics are not especially rich in theme, characterization, language, or sophisticated plotting. I suspect it is this fact — that superhero comics (and, perhaps, daily newspaper comic strips or “funnies”) do not generally possess much in the way of literary or artistic values — that underwrites much across-the-board scepticism about the art of comics. But this is a misguided scepticism. For although it may be the case that the best-known comics in English fall into these categories, there are a very large number of comics that do not.

Finally, is it the case that the categorical question really is less important than the question of value? It is plausible that warranted critical evaluation of works of art depends on their proper categorization. If so, then categorical questions are of utmost importance. Matters of value and evaluation may be our ultimate concern, but dealing with these matters depends on settling categorial issues.

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