Thursday, May 6, 2010

Are Comics Literature?

My own academic background is in literature, and my particular interest in comics is in comics as literature.  Though comics distinguish themselves from literary forms by the necessary inclusion of images, advocates of comics as literature make two main, complementary, points.  Firstly, much of what we take to be literary analysis or literary theory or literary criticism is in fact narrative analysis or theory or criticism.  This is already evident in that literature scholars often study drama, and sometimes study film.  Secondly, the study of comics as literature emphasizes the position that education in literature is more about teaching skills than about teaching a body of knowledge.  Literature students should develop the skills to read anything well, not only develop familiarity with works that have historically been considered great.

That last statement may invoke an objection from some readers.  Who says that comics are not great?  Who says that comics aren't worth reading for their own sake, to be absorbed into the canon?  After all, there are certainly comics that have had a profound impact on culture  There are two responses to this objection.  The first and simplest is that this is a case when the difference of medium becomes relevant.  There are great comics, but even the greatest comics are not great novels.  Just as there are canonical and great films, but the great films do not necessarily belong in the canon of literature, so perhaps the great comics do not belong in the canon of literature, but rather in the canon of comics.  The second reason is that comics have not existed for long enough to objectively establish any specific comic within the canon of literature.  The only criteria by which a work can be objectively placed within the canon is historical.  Though the "great" works of literature are worth studying, worth reading, on their own terms, so are minor works not considered great within the standard canon of literature.  The placement of works within a canon serves two purposes; the first is to highlight influential or often alluded-to works so that other, later works can be better understood -- so for example Tennyson's Idylls of the King are made richer through familiarity with Malory's Le Morte Darthur --and the second is to recommend works that a consensus of readers historically have considered to be excellent.  If I don't appreciate a canonically great book it is likely that I am missing something in it.  That does not mean, however, that books that are not canonically "great" are not worth reading, or that they are not worthy of being recognized as great.  But we can only recognize new books as great -- if that is our goal -- by reading books not already so considered.  In short, there is no need to (falsely) insist that Alan Moore's Watchmen is the equivalent of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  It isn't, but it doesn't need to be.

This isn't intended to undermine the status of comics as literature.  On the contrary, it is intended to argue that even comics that aren't the canonically great works of the medium are still worthy of being read and studied as literature, and that studying comics as literature helps hone the analytical skills of literature scholars, and helps expand our collective understanding of comic narratives and of narrative in general.  The third purpose of somehow legitimizing comic studies is either impossible or redundant, depending on the sympathies of the audience, and is ultimately unnecessary anyway.

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