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November 1, 2010

Op-Ed: What’s in a Name? Comic Books by Any Other Name Would Still Be as Sweet

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Conor McCreery is the cocreator of Kill Shakespeare, a 12-issue series published by IDW that has been nominated for YALSA’s 2010–2011 list of Great Graphic Novels for Kids. You can learn more by visiting killshakespeare.com.

 
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“The comic book format is suited primarily to presenting stories to audiences of limited literacy in a simplistic form. As such, it cannot be considered an appropriate means for serious teaching of any academic subject.”
 
Those words, written by the Polish-American Public Relations Committee (PAPRC), encapsulate a still prevalent way of thinking about the humble comic book. But what particular comic had so moved this group to strike out against the form? What depraved, valueless piece of pseudo-literacy, no doubt filled with lurid depictions of violence and sex, had aroused their ire?

Oh, it was Maus

You’ve probably heard of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman’s memoir. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for its striking story of how Spiegelman struggled to connect with his father, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. The PAPRC was upset because Spiegelman had used anthropomorphic forms in his comic. The Jews were mice, the Nazis cats, the Americans dogs…and the Polish? Pigs.

But of course, it was the fact that Maus was a comic that was the problem…

This isn’t to take sides on Maus (Spiegelman said he chose pigs not to be prejudicial against the Poles but because he was using animal forms common to cartoons and comic books and that the pig was meant to be in the tradition of Porky, or say Ms. Piggy), but to show how even works as well regarded as Maus are often attacked for thetype of expression they use rather than their content.

Simply put, comics are still ghettoized and are still regarded as inferior to other forms of media, especially the “proper” novel. Hence the push by many creators to retire the word comic in favor of the more impressive terms sequential art and graphic novel.
 
But for me this is just putting lipstick on a (non-Polish) pig. Renaming something to protect it from criticism evokes the whiff of the most futile aspects of political correctness. However well-meaning the replacement of the word retarded by the term developmentally challenged is, it sadly does little to stop children from being cruel to each other in a playground. That change comes with real education, not nomenclature.

So, I’ll stick with comic and mean by it any examples of drawings to tell a story no matter how simple or complex—be it the single panel of The Far Side or the 352 pages of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.

But why is there this ghettoization of an entire style of expression? After all, comics have a long tradition. Think back to the time of prehistoric man and their cave paintings. Or the stories emblazoned on Egyptian tombs, such as the Scribe of Menna, which dates back to the 14th century BC and “shows scenes of harvesting, surveying, and tax collection that were clearly designed to be viewed as a narrative sequence” (that quote is from Danny Fingeroth’s Rough Guide to Graphic Novels, 2008). Or the Bayeux Tapesty, which records the Norman invasion of the British Isles. Using images to tell a story is an ancient technique, so why disregard comics, which are a mixture of that tradition with the addition of text?
 
A common argument is that comics are inferior to “proper literature.” This inferiority is often attributed to the comparative lack of text seen in a comic. This feeling is best summed up by literary critic Sidney Fairfield, who wrote in 1895, “The written word is the first and the highest expression of thought and it ever will be.”

This assertion would probably come as a shock to all of the oral-tradition cultures of the globe, not to mention Picasso, Michelangelo, and Mozart, as well as Albert Einstein, who so elegantly used numbers and symbols, not words, to open our eyes to the dizzying possibilities of the unseen world around us.

It is fairly easy then to discredit the idea of the written word as the be-all and end-all of human communication. In addition, a number of current studies discuss how comics, by merging images and text, engage both the left and right sides of the brain. Or one can go back to Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind (1983) to see how comics can be used to develop both linguistic and spatial intelligences. While in This Book Contains Graphic Language (2007), Rocco Versaci argues that comics are as sophisticated as film and literature.
 
“Reading comics requires an active though largely subconscious participation on the part of the reader,” he argues. This type of participation comes up in many ways. First, unlike most novels, comic readers need to determine how to read any given page. In some comics, this is obvious; in others, it is up to the reader to figure out which image, piece of dialogue, or caption comes first.
Second, for me, and Nobel prize-winning author Thomas Mann, comics represent the ultimate “democratic spirit.” Unlike in a movie, in which the images are edited for you, a comic allows the reader as much or as little time as they want to take in the visual aspects. Due to the comparatively reduced amount of text, it is common for comics readers to reread pages or entire issues to enhance their understanding of the story.

These challenges make comics unique. While a surface reading can still bring out the bare bones of the story, a fluency in comics allows a reader to unlock subtle storytelling elements that may not be obvious at first glance. For teachers unfamiliar with comics, this can make the medium seem confusing or, somewhat paradoxically, simplistic.
 
I can point to my own mother as an example. A voracious reader who studied English literature, she at first had trouble with Bone—an award-winning series aimed at preteen readers—because the comics form was foreign to her. Since struggling through this work, she has gone on to enjoy more complex stories like Perespolis immensely.

Versaci also says that because comics are seen as “kids’ stuff,” the medium can be more subversive. He uses one chapter to detail how during WWII, comics both urged America to join the war before any other mainstream medium (a Captain America cover showed the costumed hero knocking out Hitler four months before the release of Sergeant York, a film often credited with galvanizing the interventionist movement in the United States) and also later in the war showed the Japanese and Germans in a humane light, quite unlike the films and radio dramas of the day.

And anyone who has picked up a comic in the wake of 9/11 would find several examples of complex, thoughtful characterizations of that event—which American film is only now catching up to (with the exception of the excellent United 93).

Finally, Versaci says that because comics often are by nature self-referential, they are known to be artificial and this gives them a unique level of freedom. As far back as the early 20th century, comics like Krazy Kat were compared to Dadism. As Critic M. Tomas Inge said, the strip makes us “aware that it is an artifice we are viewing, and the violation of conventions becomes a technique itself to further its own ends.”

Or, to put it another way, it’s the fact that everyone knows that comics aren’t “real” that allows comics to use such a myriad of techniques without becoming inaccessible. An example of this is Ho Che Anderson’s King—a comics biography of Martin Luther King in which the art style dramatically shifts from realistic to a gothic tone to mark the growing danger King faces as he continues his civil rights crusade.
 
Similarly, in DC’s “mainstream” comic Animal Man by Grant Morrison, the title character slowly becomes aware that he is actually a comic book character. Morrison uses this break from reality as his lever to undertake a powerful examination of our mortality and the nature of the afterlife.

The other main complaint about comics is that they are juvenile, simplistic. Exhibit A for the defense might be Maus, or King, or Black Hole, or Animal Man or any of the hundreds of comics that take on any number of challenging topics. Exhibit B: Political cartoons. We have no problem looking at these single frames as powerful examples of intelligent satire, so why does a 22-page example of this style of storytelling magically become different?

All right, I certainly won’t argue that there aren’t many examples in comics of simplistic storytelling and prurient content. But so too are their myriad examples of that sort of content in books, films, and online. The trick for the modern educator is to sift the wheat from the chafe, not to throw out an entire narrative form because some of its individual parts aren’t that impressive. As famed science-fiction writer Thomas Sturgeon put it, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”

So I urge librarians and teachers to seek out comics that tell compelling stories and use the interplay of text and images to challenge the reader to sharpen their ability to examine disparate ideas.

On that front, I’ll humbly suggest Kill Shakespeare. What cocreator Anthony del Col and I have tried to do is both flip the Bard on his head and still remain truthful to the themes and characters he created. While the idea of combining all of Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and most menacing villains in the same story on a quest to find or kill Shakespeare himself may sound radical, we are simply piggybacking on the proud tradition of creators like Neil Gaiman, Will Eisner, and Alan Moore.

Like Moore, we are combining disparate characters into the same world as he does with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which characters from Dracula, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and King Solomon’s Mines interact. Like Gaiman’s Sandman, Kill Shakespeare examines Shakespeare the man in a magical context. And like Eisner did with Hamlet on a Rooftop, we’ve attempted to put classic Shakespearean quotations and scenarios into a different light, allowing readers to recontextualize the Bard’s themes and ideas.

In the end, you may feel we fail at all of these, but please chalk that up to our abilities and storytelling choices, not to any deficiency in the medium as a whole.

After all, you wouldn’t toss out Jane Austen just because Harlequin Romance novels exist.