A Hurried and Last-Minute but Hopefully Coherent, Readable, and Informative—but I’ll Settle for just Tolerable—Dispatch from a Guy who reads both Books With Pictures, and Books Without
[in november '08, in the corporeal paper-bound wake, ali jaafar and i published an article about the literariness of comics, which we were both very excited about. we thought it would be awesome to make the thing itself into a comic, but though the idea was cool, it came out somewhat illegible. this is the original document which i sent to ali some 70 minutes after we decided we wanted to co-write a thing about comics and literature, already after the deadline for that issue of the wake. it is something of a reissue of that printed article, something of an artifact of the wake's production process, something of an attempt to make my ideas about comics available in a legible form, and it's also my selfish little way of showing to those who could read that tiny handwriting which ideas were mine and which were ali's.]
Are comics literature? I would say no, because to me the word “literature” implies text, and the thing that makes comics such an amazing medium for art is their use of images not as supplementary but as integral. I’m not saying it can’t be convincingly argued that comics should fall under the moniker of literature, just that I prefer the idea of comics as a separate art form from literature, though I do believe that comics are just as legitimate as a medium. That is I think the central point of my position: comics are separate from literature, a different thing than literature, but not a lesser thing.
One of the primary reasons why I think this split is important is because of the versatility of the comics form. Just as not all prose is literature, not all comics are literary. In fact, comics, though somewhat underexploited in this area, are perfectly suited for the quick and effective conveyance of information, as shown by Larry Gonick’s “Cartoon Guide to…” series, covering physics, chemistry, statistics, sex, etc. The ability of comics to provide non-narrative non-fictional non-literary information borders on a universality that is impossible in text, as evidenced by the preference towards comics above prose in documents such as airline safety manuals (those little illustrations of how to assume crash position and attach your oxygen mask fit perfectly into Scott McCloud’s definition of comics in the essential Understanding Comics).
In the most straightforward sort of narratives, where the artist is unconcerned with exploiting the peculiar potential of the form and is instead attempting to use it only as a medium for the story, comics and prose literature do approximately the same thing, and comics even have a bit of a leg up. In a comic panel there is potential for incredibly detailed description of the sort that would take pages and pages of text, and not only that but the description is absorbed instantaneously and without the possibility of misinterpretation which is always present in prose description (if the drawing is good, of course). Though prose literature has produced much greater works than comics, this is not because of the respective potential of the forms. One reason is that the stigma associated with comics as a “low” artistic form (more on this in a second) has kept serious artists intent on creating serious work away from the medium. This problem is thankfully going away. Another reason is that comics are very time-consuming to make, as it takes exponentially more time to draw than to type, and for that reason are also very hard to revise, and as any writer knows, revision, often thorough and extensive revision, often complete rewriting of a finished piece, is necessary to produce work of the highest aesthetic and structural quality. This is a problem not so easily overcome. However, it is not insurmountable, it just requires an incredible dedication and work ethic in the artist, a belief that bettering your work is worth the frustration that will be created by throwing out what you’ve spent hours drawing in the process of re-working a story.
An interjectory and rude rejection of anti-comics prejudice:
If the only music you had heard was Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” your ignorance would not justify your saying that music is an illegitimate art form. If the only movie you had seen was Death Race, your ignorance would not justify your saying that film is not a serious medium. If the only book you had read was The Da Vinci Code, your ignorance would not justify your saying that prose literature has no capacity for transcendent aesthetic value. Likewise, just because the only comics you know of are pulp superhero stories doesn’t make you anything but stupid for denying the potential of comics as a medium. Comics can tell almost any story, and can convey almost any information. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud uses the metaphor of art forms as pitchers of liquid. The pitcher is the form and the liquid is the content. To drink from a pitcher, not like the taste, and then blame the pitcher instead of the liquid is just plain dumb.
Returning to the line of argument before the interjection: though comics and literature are similar when used as simply as possible to convey information, the two become wildly different when the aim of the artist is to, in some degree, experiment with the form. Since almost all writing and almost all comics exploit their particular form in some way or another, the sort of purely narrative use of form described above doesn’t actually exist in anything but theory. Therefore, I am not arguing above that comics are a superior form to literature, just making a theoretical point about their relationship to each other, and their comparative potential.
Though comics are effective as a conveyor of information, I think they get really interesting when artists make use of the peculiarity of the comics form. The seamless blending of images and text is capable of doing things that are unimaginable in any other art form. This is both why I don’t think comics should be considered literature and why I do think comics are very important as an artistic medium: comics are not prose literature, comics are not movies (despite the historical link between comics and animation), comics are not the same sort of visual art as painting or sculpture. Comics, though they draw from both prose and painting, are a form of their own, with unique potential to do things that no other medium can (the key to this is spatial juxtaposition of imagery; for a good example of what I mean, read Rebecca Dart’s “Rabbithead”). It is for this reason that the stigma on comics must be lifted, and why comics should be regarded with serious interest by those who care about art. It is also for this reason that I reject that argument that comics should be regarded as another form of literature: this degrades comics and denies them their amazing uniqueness and unique power.
Fiction (ranked in order of straightforwardness and ease of comprehension to those without pre-existing familiarity with the comic form, easiest first):
Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Cages by Dave McKean
Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
Dogs and Water by Anders Nilsen
Literary Memoir (ranked in order of mass appeal, most mass-appealing first):
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Fun Home by Allison Bechdel
Non-Fiction/Informational (not ranked at all):
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick
A Treasury of Victorian Murder by Rick Geary
Anthologies (also not ranked):
Best American Comics
[and i'd like to add The Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw to the list of fiction, somewhere towards the bottom. it didn't make the original article, because i had not yet read it.]