In Defense of Comic Books

Daniel Watson-Jones

The comic book, or “graphic novel” as it’s called in collected form, is a lot like Rodney Dangerfield. It can be rude, crude, and even downright offensive, but in spite of those qualities it demands more respect. Also like the late Mr. Dangerfield, when at their best, comics represent art of the highest quality. Many people still think that comics are limited to the pulp superhero and crime drama stories of the fifties and sixties, when in fact the field has evolved to produce and support material of a quality that’s almost unimaginable to the close-minded snobs who refuse to pay attention.

As with most art forms throughout history, it began crudely and has developed into something much greater than it was.  It’s easy to forget that ballet began as a way to show off prostitutes to the drunken aristocracy during intermissions at the theatre. Now no one in his right mind would argue that ballet cannot be high art.  Jazz, blues and rock music have had their critics, but the artistic merits of each have outlasted them all. The difficulty is often in recognizing good art when it’s being made, instead of years down the road after it has already suffered a period of being maligned. I would argue that comics need recognition now.

Take for instance Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which ran for 75 issues from the late 1980s to the mid-90s.  It was the only comic to ever win the World Fantasy Award (and likely the only one ever, as the rules were changed to exclude comics shortly after there was an outcry from authors of “real” fantasy fiction) and within the comic field it’s widely considered to be a masterpiece. The ever-shifting story arcs focus on the journey of the eponymous Sandman (the embodiment of dreams themselves) as he grows, changes, and makes decisions that affect the whole world. Seen as individual installments, the Sandman comics are entertainment at worst, and very well-done entertainment at best, but viewed as an entire collection (as Gaiman envisioned them) they become an astounding work of literature, the nature of which hasn’t been seen since the serialized novels of Mark Twain’s era.

This isn’t to say that every comic out there is groundbreaking work.  Just like rock music, impressionist painting, and art-house cinema, ninety percent of the genre is absolute garbage. Still, that top ten percent can be the cause of life changing revelations.  Or, at the very least, a few Dangerfield-esque chuckles.


2 Responses to “In Defense of Comic Books”

  1. 1 Tristan Axelrod '08 May 9, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    I agree with you that comics can be high art, but for every Sandman, Maus, or Watchmen, there’s 50,000 pieces of trash that are not just terrible, but they’re abysmally awful while claiming to be high art a la Sandman, Maus, or Watchmen. Case in point: Frank Miller. In fact, I think that Sandman and Watchmen are the only ‘comic books’ that I would ever have called high art, and that Maus falls in the category of graphic novel that I assign to a serious writer who works with images as well, a category that would include Harvey Pekar’s work and to a lesser extent certain newspaper cartoonists.

  2. 2 Cole Moore Odell '93 May 12, 2007 at 3:17 am

    Dan Roberts’ essay on HBO elsewhere in this section and some of the comments here make me want to mount a defense of junk. It’s true almost everything in comics fails to rise to the level of literary masterpiece. But I think it’s a mistake to hold that against comics which happen not to be Sandman, Jimmy Corrigan, etc. Many comics have no ambitions to be held up as deathless classics of world literature that raise consciousnesses and change lives, but to be rousing entertainments, temporary diversions. Admittedly, many fail even on that level; as DWJ says in his allusion to Ted Sturgeon’s rule, 90% of everything is garbage. But there are artistic successes in pop culture that do not aspire to reflect the tone and ambitions of literary novels as do The Sopranos and Watchmen. One recent example is the just-concluded year-long weekly series from DC comics, 52. This comic focused on such trivial characters as The Elongated Man and Animal Man, concerned itself with some of the most absurd concepts in DC Comics’ vast cosmic continuity, reveled in its existence as a pure comic book, and was a straight year of wonderfully satisfying pop. It is unlikely to hold up as a great example of comics (or any kind of) art, but it had the same kick as a pop or punk song that convinces you that it’s the best thing ever the first few times you hear it. There’s something to be said for that; it’s a pleasure just as real the pleasure one derives from capital-A Art. It’s what comics, rock and roll and other “low” forms have specialized in since their inception.

    Finally, Tristan, I take issue with the distinction you make between good comic books and graphic novels like Maus written by “serious writers.” This seems to preclude comics from ever being taken seriously as a form, because as soon as one is good enough, it’s by definition no longer a comic. Huh? Of course, this stance has a pedigree: when Maus was first released, there were critics who denied that it was a comic, precisely because they liked it. On the other hand, I agree entirely that there’s little worse than a bad comic with pretensions to Deep Meaning (Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come comes to mind here.) And I recently read something about Frank Miller that made me feel better about him: one should remember that his real artistic peers are not Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, but 1970s superhero artists like George Perez and John Byrne. With that in mind, he comes off a lot better. (His early 1980s run on Daredevil was precisely the kind of fun pop junk that comics occasionally do so well.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: