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.
However, 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).