Reading Comics, Part 1

FanLit welcomes Brad Hawley to our team of reviewers. Dr. Hawley received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon in 2000, specializing in ethics and contemporary fiction as well as rhetoric and composition. After teaching for two years at Jacksonville State University and a short break from teaching to be a stay-at-home dad, he now teaches at Oxford College of Emory University. During the past fifteen years, he has taught courses and independent studies in composition, Crime Fiction, Comic Books, Beat Literature, twentieth-century poetry, and Shakespeare. His wife, who also teaches English at Oxford College, thinks he has too many comic books. (Find his entire series on reading comics here.)

Reading Comics: An Introduction for the Skeptical, Part 1:
Why Read Comics?

by Dr. Brad K. Hawley

I once looked down on comics. Oh, I knew there were two, perhaps three, that were worth reading. Maybe. But, of course, this younger, snobby self I once was had a Ph.D. in English, and I knew what good literature was, and it wasn’t comics. I couldn’t expect everybody to have such high standards.

Obviously these views have changed — or I wouldn’t be writing this essay. At that time, I also looked down on most genre, or formula, fiction in the broad categories of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and crime fiction. Now, however, I believe working within the expectations of a genre — like working within the conventions of a sonnet — leads to certain artistic results that wouldn’t be possible without those restrictions. And just like one must understand the conventional structure and content of a sonnet, one must understand the content and stylistic conventions of a specific genre — which for me became crime fiction, my gateway into comics — to understand fully when an artist pulls off a work of genius. I believe comics work in the same manner.

The goal of this essay, then, is to provide the beginner, the skeptical, with enough information to get started appreciating comics, and it is aimed at the true novice who perhaps just found out that not all comics are funny — who might have heard the term graphic novel but thinks that graphic material belongs in a store with darkened windows and not in my discussion of comics in this essay. So after a brief consideration of censorship in comics, we will consider key terms before turning to an examination of the physical aspects of the comic book itself, of the need for artistic teamwork, and of certain devices — word-to-image relationships, word balloons, and gutters — to convey meaning as only comics can. Finally, I will give some suggested readings.

As I mentioned before, comics have a certain history of conventional subject matter and appearance that should be understood, and censorship has played an important role in that history. In the United States, the most popular comics have been aimed at children and are about superheroes. Initially, however, comics also reflected the same content as pulp fiction of the time: Westerns, Crime, and Horror. For example, Educational Comics — EC Comics — turned into Entertaining Comics, thus keeping their EC logo, but changing their focus to horror, science fiction, and war stories in such titles as Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science, and Crime SuspenStories. EC’ssuccess with these titles led them — with the publication of Mad in 1952 — into satire, a more adult form of humor since irony is often missed entirely by children.

Seduction of the InnocentHowever, just as publishers of comics were starting to see older readers as a potential audience, a book — loathed by comic lovers to this day — changed everything: Afraid of being censored after the publication in 1954 of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent — a fear-inciting book about the harmful impact of comics on children — the publishers of comic books decided on self-regulation. I can’t help but believe this self-regulation prevented comics from continuing their development for mature audiences along the same lines as pulp fiction crime stories and horror. I don’t mean to say that there is nothing to be gained by the adult reader in studying comics published during the twenty-five years after Seduction of the Innocent came out — there are certainly cultural and historical reasons for doing so. And there are adult themes in some of these comics, but many of these had to become implicit and therefore subversive rather than mainstream and explicitly addressed to an adult audience.

For the most part, comics produced by the two main publishers — DC and Marvel — were mainly about superheroes with themes and storylines aimed at children. The edgier horror and crime comics that had the potential to capture an older audience disappeared, and since children became the primary fan-base, the belief that comics were for kids permeated our culture. It still does to this day. However, while the association continues, comics are no longer for kids. 1986 is an important year because it marks the publication of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miler’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, two comics that make it clear that something was happening in comics. However, the date shouldn’t mislead one into thinking they mark an abrupt change that came out of nowhere: These two titles represent the culmination of a change in the world of comics about the potential age and intelligence of the perceived audience for comics. Under Frank Miller’s direction, for example, Daredevil had already become more of a gritty, noir comic for adults than just another superhero adventure for purchase on the kids’ comic rack. And by the 1990s, comics had a large adult following as they tackled serious adult themes with subject matter and images not appropriate for children. These are the comics that appeal to me since, not having grown up reading comics, I don’t have a nostalgia for older titles that predate the 1980s.

In my writing and talking about why I read comics, I can never stress enough that I read them because of the themes. The comic books I read, study, and teach aren’t for adults just because many of them would get an “R” rating if they were movies. They are for educated adults because they have content with thematic depth. These comics convey ideas, deal with ethics, consider philosophical problems, and basically deal with the same issues that the best literature has always addressed. As an English professor, I teach comics not because they are fun — though they are — and not because reluctant readers sometimes become engaged with fictional narrative in a book for the first time ever — though this, too, happens. I read and teach comics for the same reason I read novels every single day and teach fiction any chance I get: They deal with philosophy, religion, ethics, love, loss, purpose, families, friends, and all the other subjects we must consider when trying to have a meaningful life. And they do so just as well as novels. They even do it better than some novels. So, while the rest of this essay will focus on how to navigate and appreciate the art and craft of comic books, the reason for taking the time to learn to read comics and appreciate them as art is because of the meaningful content.

Next week: Part 2: Terminology and Production


Author’s note: I want to thank the readers of early drafts of this essay, all of whom made useful comments reflected in the final version of this essay: Ellen Attorri, Chelsea Cariker, Abby Weisberger, and Chris Ziegler (four excellent students in my Crime Fiction course at Oxford College of Emory University); Sean Lind and Ellen Neufeld (two Oxford College librarians who allow me to work with them as they develop a substantial comic book and graphic novel collection for the college); Andy Tegethoff (my long-time friend and comic-book expert who has helped me not only with this essay, but who also has taught me much of what I know about comics); and finally Dr. Adriane Ivey (my wife and colleague, who has not only read this essay several times, but has made room in our house for yet one more obsessive collection).

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BRAD HAWLEY earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

View all posts by Brad Hawley

23 comments

  1. What a great essay. I had never heard of Seduction of the Innocent (Speaking of sensationalism) before I read this essay. Looking forward to Part II!

  2. Brad, I hope you’ll write a review of Seduction of the Innocent.

    I recently bought a book about how to review graphic novels and realized that I don’t really understand enough to say more than “I like this because it’s pretty and has a great story.” I am really looking forward to learning about how the art informs the story. It has only been recently that I’ve been willing to consider comics as a form of literature… And I could use a little more convincing about that…

    Welcome to FanLit!

  3. Brad, I’ve been meaning to read Watchmen ever since the show Heroes came out. This may be the push I need to get over the edge and actually do it.

    Kat, what book did you get? I’m still at the, “oooh, pretty stage” too.

  4. “How to Draw Graphic Novel Style” by Andy Fish. It is actually a book about how to draw them, but I got it so that I could understand enough about the art form to be able to critique it. There may be better books out there, but I just don’t know enough to say. I am totally a novice.

    I also got it because my 9 year old daughter loves children’s graphic novels (e.g. Bad Kitty, Wimpy Kid) and is interested in drawing (which is a big part of the reason I became interested in the genre as both art and literature).

  5. Looking forward to reading the rest of this, as an ever optimistic skeptic who keeps hoping to be blown away or captivated . . . (though perhaps I’m always at war with that nostalgia you mentioned–after all, I can still visualize specific panels from my comic book youth days)

  6. Thank you for your comments. As I’ll be discussing in a future article, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is the best book I’ve read on the art of comics. I’ve taught it several times in my courses, and students are generally impressed with how much they can learn from a comic book about comic books. That book was the turning point for me in really deciding that comic books were not only worth reading, but worthy of close analysis in the college classroom. It’s basically an art appreciation book on comics. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  7. Brad, great essay! And I agree with you about Scott McCloud — how to read a graphic novel, told in graphic novel form. Great stuff!

    I came to comics when my then-local SF bookstore (The Stars Our Destination, late of Belmont Avenue in Chicago, may it rest in peace) recommended that I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. At that point I’d not heard of Neil Gaiman, much less Sandman, and hadn’t read a comic since sitting around the college bookstore. I was blown away — and it led me to DC’s Vertigo line, which I’ve read obsessively ever since. And I haven’t stopped there, speaking of obsessive collections in the house!

    I hope to learn a lot more about comics from a real student of the genre. Thanks for coming on board — your scholarship (and your recommendations) will be most welcome!

  8. Cool. My library has a copy of the McCloud. I’ll have to check it out.

  9. Derek /

    Good suggestion. I’ll have to bust out my copy of McCloud’s book . . . if I can find it (shame on me). I heard his Reinventing Comics was also a must read but I know little about it.

  10. Great points, Doc! If implemented properly, this medium can do things no other can. I had read loads of books pertaining to Nazi Germany before I read “Maus”. Yet, I’m not sure anything moved me more and I probably couldn’t explain why that book meant so much to me.

    Terry, good call on “Sandman” and the Vertigo line. I love “Scalped” and “Sweet Tooth”. I got hooked on Jeff Lemire when I came across his “Essex County” graphic novels.

  11. Brad Hawley /

    In what might be the third section of this essay, I’ll be talking about recommendations. Instead of just providing lists (as much as I love them), I’ll make my suggestions in essay form so you’ll get a better idea of whether you might really want to tackle a particular title. I started out with noir comics, but have learned to like a wide variety, including superhero comics. I’ll cover all these kinds and more. And Sandman, to me, is one of the greatest achievements in any art form. I also love the Vertigo line.

  12. Oh, Brad, recommendations! I think I’ve fallen in love with you. (Don’t tell my husband.)

  13. (It’s our secret, Terry.) It’s a pleasure to join the fun here on FanLit. Hope you enjoy the rest of the essay.

  14. BRÀÀD! DUDE…(just now seeing this) Your essay may just be one of the most impressive debuts on FanLit. Awesome job my friend \m/

  15. I’m going to add to the McCloud love. Made me think so much about both how comics work and the way we think. Great post, Brad, and welcome aboard!

  16. Thank you all for the kind words. And thank you Greg. If I hadn’t met Greg on a discussion thread about reading comics on the kindle fire, I never would have met Kat (also through emails) and been asked to write a review of some comics, and it was Kat’s idea that, before I write my first review, I write this essay about why and how one should read comics. So thank you Greg and Kat!

  17. Great essay …and I’m a skeptic. I readily accept that a graphic novel can explore themes essential to crafting and navigating a meaningful life.

    I’m curious about what seems to be hinted at here: that there is something inherent in the genre that allows for more potent exploration of said themes.

    How? What are those characteristics?

  18. Stay tuned for part two. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. All questions will be answered (and perhaps to your satisfaction).

  19. Dr. Hawley,
    Great to see a professor who not only talks about but TEACHES the value of this misunderstood form of literature. Okay, not ALL of it is “literature” but much of it is and no one can argue that comics haven’t had a massive affect on our culture. (After all, everyone knows who Superman, Batman, and Spiderman are.) Thank you for doing what you do!
    And THANKS for your insightful comment about genres and literature. The two terms are not mutually exclusive! (Which Orwell and Burgess proved, to name only two, and which I hope to prove myself someday.)
    Thanks again.

    • Brad Hawley /

      JD,
      You just made my day! Thank you so much for your response here. At the moment, I’m teaching a crime fiction course, and I always include crime comics as part of the course. This time around, we’re reading Batman: Year One, Brubaker’s Criminal: Coward, Gotham Central Vol 1, and Near Death by Jay Faerber (a wonderful crime comic that cancelled too quickly).

      There’s so much great stuff coming out, my budget can’t keep up with all the comics I want to read! Even when I find myself complaining about the New 52 as a whole, once I start listing individual comics, I find that there are a bunch that I’m really enjoying, from Snyder’s and Hurwitz’s Batman stories to All-Star Western and Swamp Thing. Comics featuring women are really impressive even in the much-disparaged New 52: Batwoman and Wonder Woman are incredible titles. If only we still had Montoya, the female Question. Outside of DC, Brubaker and Rucka continue to write fascinating female characters in Fatale and Lazarus. I even like what Ron Marz has done with Witchblade/Artifacts, featuring a female character who is one of the least appreciated strong women in comics (see my reviews from last Friday and today). Marvel continues to hook me with Hawkeye and Daredevil, two comics I never miss, but Marvel has so many interesting titles coming out that I’m gonna have to wait for the dust to settle to decide what to pick up in trade. (I hear FF is great) At the moment, I’m eagerly awaiting some reprintings, of older comics, particularly of Starlin’s Thanos 1-12.

      Other companies are finally really getting a chance to take up some real estate on the display shelves. I love what Wagner’s doing with John Tower and at Dynamite with year one of The Shadow, which if it’s as good as his Green Hornet: Year One, will be the best Shadow comic ever, from my perspective. Image, of course, continues to come up with title after title, with Fatale and Saga leading the way as far as I’m concerned. Once again, I’ll probably just have to wait and pick up some trades once I see which of their titles get the most attention (Saga and Fatale are a given, though. Fatale has great extra material, so I always buy Brubaker’s comics as monthly titles and in trade).

      I’m also VERY excited about VERTIGO, which I thought was a dying beast. I love Vertigo titles. And after blowing it and losing some of their best writers, I think they are finally ready to go in the right direction again. I somehow missed seeing the Vertigo Preview until this week, and I am the most excited I’ve been in a long time over a batch of announced comics. If any of you out there reading this haven’t picked up a free copy of the 2013 Vertigo Preview, go get a copy now. Great stuff. Heck, it’s worth it for the splash page of Gaiman’s Sandman illustrated by J.H. Williams III (my favorite comic book artist, followed closely by Darwyn Cooke and P. Craig Russell).

      Since I wrote this series of essays, I’ve finally started reading more slice-of-life and indie material. After rewatching Crumb and American Splendor, I’ve spent time actually reading Crumb and Pekar and am fascinated by both. I absolutely love Pekar’s writing, both his earliest work and his latest work for Vertigo. I’ve also been reading Daniel Clowes’s work. I’ve always liked Ghost World, but I just finished Wilson and thought it was brilliant. Finally, I’ve found many comics outside of the superhero genre available from Top Shelf during their comixology sales.

      I’ve also been focusing more and more on the difference between art form and genre when teaching comic books. To me, the comic book is a very specific art form that offers as many genres and subgenres as any other art form that employs narrative fiction (narrative poetry and songs; novels, including short stories and novellas; movies; and drama). Unfortunately, the art form of the comic book has become equated in the popular imagination with the genre of superheroes. As a result, people see comic books as a genre instead of an art form with a genre that has dominated it historically. I love superhero comics, but I like to let people know that they don’t have to read any superhero comics to read and enjoy comics.

      What about you, JD? Are you more of a monthly reader or a reader of trades? Have you started using Comixology as I have? Or do you like all three formats (as I do, for different reasons)?

      And what titles do you like/recommend (Old or current)? Any new titles coming out that you think are not getting the attention they deserve and unfortunately are flying under the radar of most readers? (I am loving The Dream Merchant, myself).

      I’d appreciate hearing back from you.

      Peace,
      Brad

      • Brad,

        I wasn’t sure if you’d ever even see my comment so I’m blown away that it spurred on such a grand response. Thanks!

        And I’m envious and wish I could participate in your crime fiction class. (As you can probably tell from my avatar pic, I like noir.) I enjoyed lit classes “a long time ago,” getting my BFA in writing in ’99 (which is why i had to get a BS of Nursing in 2008…) Kinda miss those classes, believe it or not.

        I have of course read “Batman: Year One” but that’s the only title on your list I’m familiar with. On my long wish list right now is King’s newest “JoyLand” which looks like a fun read. (I sometimes have a hard time getting through his longer stuff but this one looks promising.) Right now I don’t have nearly as much time for reading as I’d like, nor the budget, as you say, to explore all the comics that look good.

        My comics habits tend to be like chickens in the yard — i peck here and there, once in a while, and then see some shiny object in the distance and don’t find my way back till my mind happens to wander back in this direction. I had been recently getting into “All-New X-men”, which I enjoyed several issues of up till yesterday, actually, when I decided I’d probably had enough. (Bendis is a huge talent but he tends to write like a soap opera — lots and lots of talking with very little action or forward movement of the story in any one episode — not sure it’s worth my monthly tithe anymore.) In the old days I was (and mostly still am) a fan of Batman and X-men, to a lesser degree the Avengers, and the Hulk was always my hero. Nowadays I breeze through the comic shops and bookstores here and there just seeing if anything catches my eye. (I try to give those dollars to real comic shops, but admit to buying in big chain bookstores sometimes too.) I tend to pick up trades of a series run, especially if I’ve heard good things about them. I did get the first trade for the New 52 Wonder Woman (really cool reboot rooted in Greek mythology–great roots to get back to), Batman (also a good reboot with the underlying secret society of the Owls in Gotham), and Suicide Squad (gritty cool badguys — I liked everything except the skinny Amanda Walker — why does everyone have to be unbelievably hot and anorexic these days??). But that was like a year ago now. My chicken instincts kicked in and I never got back to them.

        As you say, superheroes is the first thing you think of with comic books but it’s just the foundation (and probably not even historically really THE foundation, as you explore above), but it does tend to be where i home back to the most. However, I also recently discovered “East of West” from Image and I’m loving it. Very genre-bending, a smooth blend of Western, Sci-Fi, and the Apocalypse. Great stuff with a cool style. (I’m a big fan of Westerns too, at least in the movies.) This series reminds me more of Dark Horse in my high school days than Image (which came about in my high school days), but just from what i see in the backs of East of West, it looks like Image has a lot of amazing, non-tights-wearing titles going on. Wish i had the time and resources to explore a lot more of them. “Chin Music” looks especially appealing to me. Know anything about that one? Might even fit your crime lit class.

        Well I think I’ll stop there before I get too carried away, watch the Simpsons and call it a night. THANKS again for the conversation!
        (By the way, I’m planning to submit my first novel in the coming week for hopeful review here on FanLit and hope you’ll consider giving it a look-see.)

        Good night, all.

        JD Brink

      • Oh, one more relevant bit: I also just read two *graphic novels* I picked up at my local library.
        1. “Batman: Broken City” by Azzarello and Risso, which is a very gritty, VERY NOIR Batman story that i enjoyed quite a bit.
        2. Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” in graphic novel form. That’s right, THAT “The Kite Runner,” the very literary novel about two boys from Afghanistan. I felt just a little guilty for reading it because it seemed a rather lazy way to get that 300-some page novel knocked back in two reading sessions, but it was certainly effective. (And a surprising intense story!)
        Yet another example of the power and breadth of comics!

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