Readings, and Related Inspirations

Moving On From Comics 101


Comics aren’t new. They’ve been around for more than 150 years. Yet for some reason, scholars have neglected them as a topic worth studying. I guess I can understand why. Comics are for kids, right? When you go to read the paper and your 7 year old nephew is sitting at the table with you, asking if he can try your coffee, what do you do? You hand him the funnies, right?

We all grew up with Garfield, or we should have, if we didn’t. Garfield’s funny.

But the truth of the matter is that comics are not just for children. In fact, most comics are not for children at all. Not at all.

Many comics are serious story-telling that work well in the same medium that the above cartoon uses.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the television show The Walking Dead on AMC. Maybe zombies aren’t your thing and you don’t watch it, but hopefully you’ve heard of it. You may or may not know that it’s based on a popular comic put out by image Comics of the same name. The Walking Dead has been coming out in comic form, single issues first, then graphic novels, then huge bound volumes that are some kind of collector’s thing that I don’t really understand, since 2003. It has an author, just like a regular book, Robert Kirkman, and an artist, as one might imagine, named Tony Moore.

And it is gory, gritty, adult reading.

Here’s something that many people may not know about comics, and that wasn’t mentioned in any of our readings:

Comics have separate authors that get recognized as legitimate writers in the genre, just like all-text literary authors are. If you like the work Kirkman does on The Walking Dead, you might also like what he does on Marvel Zombies or a non-zombie comic called Invincible.

Further than that, the artists that work on comics are as well known, if not arguably more so, for their interpretation of the author’s work in image form. For example, the artist on the comic 30 Days of Night is called Ben Templesmith. There was a movie put out based on this comic released in 2007. Warren Ellis, an incredibly well-known comics author, started a pet project called Fell in 2005, a dark Noir tale, and sought out Templesmith to do the art. And it was a really nice project.

Fell with Warren Ellis

30 Days of Night - Templesmith

It is hopefully obvious, even at first glance, that Templesmith drew both of these pages, Fell on the left, 30 Days on the right(below). Unfortunately, there was a page more similar in color where the art style was much more similar, but for some reason, wordpress didn’t want to upload the other page.

Looking at these pages, we can see that comics are not, decidedly, ‘just for kids’. We begin with a note containing an overt reference to suicide at the top of the left hand page. In the first three panels of the comic on the right, we see a vampire rip a guy open. Comics are for kids, you’ve heard? If I ever have children, they can have Garfield, but sticky hands off my first edition Fell trades until they’re at least 16.

And this brings me back to my original argument: “Yet for some reason, scholars have neglected [comics] as a topic worth studying.”

McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is an excellent place to start if you are not already immersed in the world of comics. And even if you are, it has some really excellent language to attach to concepts that would make any seasoned comics reader nod, and say, “yeah…. that is how it works, isn’t it?” For example, Scott McCloud, in Chapter 2, introduces us to some really important theoretical concepts like the icon. He leads us through all the types for, and uses of, icons, and the various levels of abstraction. In later chapters, McCloud will introduce us to concepts that had no name attached to them, such as the concept of closure: “closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality”(67). Here, McCloud is putting terms to basic reading skills needed to produce meaning in comics. We all do it as we read, but pre-1993, there was no set term for this kind of production.

The keyword here is ‘basic’. Before McCloud’s book was published in 1993 though, there weren’t texts that talked about comics in this way. McCloud’s text is seminal in two ways: in its depth about the nature of comics, and in the medium in which is is written to convey these concepts. McCloud is successful in illustrating his point through the use of the comics medium. The problem is that we are 20 years into McCloud’s 1993 future, and we don’t have much theoretical work on comics to stack on top of Understanding Comics. 

The Eisner reading doesn’t take any strides past McCloud. In fact, it’s much more basic than McCloud, and an appropriate reading level for children. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just really basic.

Hatfield, on the other hand, does make some new arguments, and some important claims. Like any scholar talking about a rather ‘new’ topic, Hatfield is concerned with where comics fits, disciplinarialy. As well he should be. No one has ‘claimed’ comics, as it were. And more importantly, no one knows how to classify comics!

One of the major arguments Hatfield poses is in trying to establish the importance of comics as a medium: “asserting that comics can be literature is, in part, a way of asserting that they are artistically serious and important” (9). Amidst the discussion about where comics fit in the disciplines, Hatfield is trying to give comics agency in the literary world. Are they literature? Are they literary? Are they something else? I plan on discussing this issue in some depth in my final paper, so I am not going to go into it here, but the distinction is an important one, for sure.

The other issue Hatfield brings up is the fact that we’re still presenting comics, “as if the field were almost brand-new” (5), as though people need to understand how to move their eyes from panel to panel before we can really dig deeper into theoretical or narrative contexts. We’re so busy talking about whether or not comics are literature, that we don’t really talk about any particular comic. But a problem I have with this discussion, besides the fact that it is hopelessly behind where I personally think we need to be in the field of comics, is that the argument appears to be an all-or-nothing brew-ha-ha for comics as literature. Except not all text-only books are considered literature, so why would be attempt to distinguish all of comics as ‘literature’ or not? A story like Fell is so much more interesting, well written and serious than a comic like 30 Days of Night. It would be like literarily comparing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Rice’s Interview With a Vampire. Why would you even try to do that?

By now, I’ve gone well over our allotted 500-1000 words, and I apologize, but I have a lot to say about comics. I think Hatfield has a really strong argument here, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. We need to figure out how to talk about comics more cohesively. We need to agree on terms, on citation, and we need to reign in that identity issue comics is suffering from so this study can gain some notoriety. Comics aren’t going anywhere, and they’re getting really good.

Let me know if you want to look into being a comics reader. I know some really good titles to recommend.


4 thoughts on “Moving On From Comics 101

  1. I’ve noticed the comic book form making its way into live action. My wife likes to check out the new TV shows each season. One she DVR’d is Person of Interest. I watched the first couple of shows and didn’t like it. But, what I saw was a sparse, dark sensibility, a style of montage that was jarring, and dialogue that was like over-the-top pulp. All together it reminded me more of a comic book, than a television drama.

  2. It’s true that the comic book narrative is invading live action, though I don’t know I would phrase it by saying “the form”. You do hit on something REALLY important here: montage. Many comic scholars compare the form of comics with film montage in order to illustrate the fill-in-the-blank style the audience employs when reading a comic page, and also when viewing a film montage. But what I thought I knew about montage, is apparently not the whole picture. I am definitely into looking more into montage, but probably won’t for this paper.

  3. As I mentioned in the post after this one, comics have never really interested me much, but I love how your enthusiasm for this topic really comes through when you write about it. I’m actually surprised that, as you say, the field of comic studies is not further along than it is, especially since comics as a medium have existed for so long now.

    Speaking of existing for so long, I think it’d be interesting to explore the history of comics. How long have words and images been used as narrative in just that manner. I’m envisioning a prehistoric comic etched graffiti-style in the side of an ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) temple or something. Comics may not get me going, but history certainly does!

    Two thoughts on what you mentioned here: 1. On the question of whether or not comics are “literary,” do they have to be? Is it necessary to recognize comics as “literature?” The only benefit I can see would be that of legitimization. If comics are considered a literary genre, then somehow that makes them more legitimate and worthy of serious academic study. Why not just take comics on their own terms, legitimize and analyze them for what they are, and let the chips fall where they may?

    2. Literature as a discipline is steeped in the somewhat arbitrary, slightly political distinction between high culture/art and low culture/art. Is it inevitable that comics will follow literature down that same path?

    • Hey Judy!

      To answer your 1 AND 2 at the same time – I think you’re exactly right. The question of literature and literary is a legitimization question. So in my paper, i will be arguing that we should quit arguing about it and let comics be comics. Though I do think they have ‘literary’ value. I will be doing a ‘lit review’ (no pun) in order to join this conversation.

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