Do Comics Have Literary Value?

maus    tintin

fun home    xman

Comics are an interesting medium. They rely very heavily on visual images to tell a story, rather than only text. They are, however, often regarded as material for children, and are not necessarily to be read by serious academics (whoever they are). But why is that? Who decided that comics can’t, or shouldn’t, be considered valuable forms of literature? 

I’ve always been interested in comics, but my love for them has grown recently because I am taking an elective on comics at my university. I decided to take this course because I wanted to learn more about comics from an academic point of view. Lately though, when people ask me about what I’m studying, I’ve feel like I have to defend myself after I tell them that I’m taking a course on comics. It isn’t until I give them examples of texts that I’ve been reading that they seem to become more accepting: “ahh, so you mean that you’re taking a course on graphic novels!” For some reason, saying that I’m studying comics has less academic significance than if I had said that I was studying graphic novels. But why is that? Comics and graphic novels are practically the same thing; they both use images as a primary method of conveying a story. However, it seems that the word ‘comic’ is associated with low brow material, whilst using ‘graphic novel’ is bit more high brow I guess. So, I wanted to share with you why I think comics (or graphic novels, what ever you want to call them) are worthwhile reads, and why they have serious literary value.

Last June I took an online course about comics and superheroes. It was taught by the Smithsonian Institute and included a lot of videos from Stan Lee himself. In case you don’t already know, Stan Lee is guy behind Marvel; The X-Men, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, that’s all him. The course was brilliant! I learnt about the history of comics, how popular they became after WWII, how they try to address taboo/difficult issues, and how they were censored in the 1950’s because they apparently “led children astray”. After taking the course I realised that comics are so much more than just simple stories told through pictures; they have the potential to educate, to instil hope, and to entertain. It was then that I decided to take the course on comics at my university. So far we’ve looked at political comics such as V for Vendetta, comics about loss and grief such as Fun Home and Mother, Come Home, comics about war such as Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths, and we’ve even looked at Tintin. This medley of material has really given me more of an insight into the world of comics, how they reflect society, and how they are not only narratively significant but also visually significant. I really enjoy learning about the social and historical context, particularly in novels such as Maus and Persepolis, analysing individual frames, and looking at how the author/artist uses the page to share something with the reader.

To me, comics have real literary value. The combination of text and images is something that is unique to this medium and is, most of the time, used successfully to tell a story. For me, great literature must cultivate new ideas, tell an amazing story, be entertaining, and engage me as a reader. Since there are many comics that can, and have, done this, I would consider them literary significant.

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