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August 18, 2009

We Haven’t Come That Far, Baby

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Thanks to Diamond's John Shableski for passing this link on to me. It's from Chicago Tribune columnist Julia Keller, who had the audacity to write an article praising some graphic novels and received a barrage of reader responses as a result ("How dare you?" is how Julia sums up their letters). Julia defends her choice (while recommending Tim Hamilton's excellent new adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451), but I have to say, she does so rather feebly ("I understood the umbrage," she wrote. "Still do, in fact..."; she tellingly entitles her column "My secret shame"). Come on, Julia; stand up and be proud. Do we really have to be ashamed of reading graphic novels, comics, manga, and the like? Are we that beholden to the literary snobs that we can only talk about the format with our heads hung low, flaggelating ourselves over something we claim to like and (the horror!) enjoy?

We can do better than this. Back in the '80s, I remember Harvey Pekar making his case for comics (if I recall correctly, it went something like this: "Comics are words and pictures put together. There's no limit to how good the words can be, and there's no limit to how good the pictures can be."). I hope I haven't misquoted Harvey too gravely; the gist is we're talking about an artform that can be good, bad, mediocre, and all ranges of the spectrum in between. We don't have to apologize for it. (At the same time, we don't need to heap praise on works that don't deserve it just because they're comics; we can call a bad comic a bad comic.) A little honest perspective is healthy for the format. But when even the people who like to read graphic works consider it to be shameful, it shows we really haven't gotten very far indeed.