Comic Books and Visual Literature: SUPERPOWER or KRYPTONITE?
COMIC BOOKS AND VISUAL LITERATURE: SUPERPOWER OR KRYPTONITE?
They have been around for a long time but… • Around 1900, the terms "comics" and "comic strip" came into common use in the United States. Where did the word come from? The strips of pictures being printed in magazines and newspapers at that time were all funny or comic. At first newspaper comic strips were called "the funnies" and later the term comics became more popular. Early American comic books were often collections of reprints of newspaper comic strips.
But since the late 1980s comic books and graphic novels have been earning a new kind of critical attention – more and more, they’re being recognized as a complex and dynamic form of literature. We are just now in the process of building a “toolbox” for analyzing this fascinating hybrid form, which joins images, words, and abstract symbols into elaborate, ever-changing designs.
Studying comics means getting out of our usual habits and trying on some new ways of reading, for, by their very nature, comics frustrate attempts to put them into a neat pigeonhole (are they pictorial narrative? visual poetry? graphic design? all of the above?). But by working to build a better toolbox for the study of comics, we can learn to see the swirling kaleidoscope of our visual culture more appreciatively, and more critically.
Analyzing comics can help us tune up our critical sensibilities so that we can more productively approach all sorts of hybrid texts, from hypertext to billboards to experimental poetry.
Most importantly, studying comics will bring us face to face with some of the most complex and thought-provoking work contemporary literature has to offer.
Comics have always been a part of our American culture, but really gained in popularity in the twenties and thirties. These stories contained very iconic figures, and were appealing to many people. In these stories, good always triumphed over evil, and the good guys and the bad guys were clearly defined. The moral make-up of these comic book characters were part of their appeal, and why they gained a larger readership than just kids.
Underground Comics • The underground comics scene had its strongest success in the United States between 1968 and 1975, with titles initially distributed primarily though “head shops.” Underground comics often featured covers intended to appeal to the drug culture, and imitated LSD-inspired posters to increase sales. Robert Crumb stated that the appeal of underground comics was their lack of censorship: "People forget that that was what it was all about. That was why we did it. We didn't have anybody standing over us saying 'No, you can't draw this' or 'you can't show that'. We could do whatever we wanted.”
No discussion of comic books and graphic novels would be complete without reference to V for Vendetta. This very popular graphic novel captured the imagination of a generation in some very new and innovative ways…
V For Vendetta • The series, imagined in the 1980s about the 1990s, depicts a near-future Britain after a limited nuclear war which has left much of the world destroyed. In this future, a fascist party has arisen as the ruling power. "V", an anarchist revolutionary dressed in a Guy Fawkes mask, begins an elaborate, violent, and theatrical campaign to bring down the government. A film adaptation was released in 2005.
Today, old favorites are given new life through edgier graphic novels
Many comics deal with moral issues, with good and evil being very clear cut, and are didactic in a way that fairy-tales and mythology often are. A myth is commonly associated with a legendary story but fictional ones from recent history can do the trick. The tales that hook us tend to feature characters, situations and themes that may be incredible but manage to speak to something about being human.
There have been countless stories but the ones that stick with us and tell us about the good or bad side of ourselves permeate. For example: Superman was inspired by stories of Sampson and Hercules. These are tales that most people can relate to on some level.
Resistance is Futile… • Comics books and graphic novels are often reflections of the popular culture of the time, giving them great historical significance. • The connections that can be found between comic books and classic and contemporary authors are countless. • One of our most time tested and iconic comic book figures can be traced back to the renowned philosopher Nietzsche!
The character Superman, is what Friedrich Nietzsche characterized as being an overman. • Superman is powerful and can do anything, and an overman was the ultimate person, someone who could do anything, like Superman. • Some other people that Nietzsche thought had almost been supermen or an overmen were Jesus, Leonardo Di Vinci, Napoleon, Michelangelo, Julius Ceasar,etc. • Nietzsche thought of himself as a superman or an overman because he helped the people become stronger and got rid of, or cursed, the weak. The weak fed off the strong and were helpless.
Some classic literature has been faithfully reproduced in graphic novel visual formats. While other graphic novels have only been flavored by literature and literary styles.
Webster's Definition of Literature • In Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary from 1913 we find the following definition of literature: • The class of writings distinguished for beauty of style or expression, as poetry, essays, or history, in distinction from scientific treatises and works which contain positive knowledge; belles-lettres. • Literature, in its widest sense, embraces all compositions in writing or print which preserve the results of observation, thought, or fancy.
Are Comic Books Literature? • What do you think? We certainly find pretty much all of the elements listed by our pal Webster in comic books and graphic novels. • Comic books have taken every imaginable theme. • Put together in volumes, a complete serialized story arch usually will have all of the elements of a complete novel or short story.
What About Graphic Novels? • What the Heck Are Those Anyway? • Is it like the Denny’s Menu of Adult lit? • Are they where movies come from? • More and more movies do come from graphic novels. • Frank Miller’s work has been the most popular in recent years. • Some you may recognize…
As well as other films that most people would not have expected to have originally been graphic novels…
Literature we know… …compared to some new literacies • Like the more familiar short stories and novels, the imaginative creative fiction that is found in comic books and graphic novels follow many of the same formulas one would expect from a good storytelling experience. • The narrative methodologies are just a bit different!
Prose vs. Visual Lit • Rather than move the story along with prose, there are caption boxes that tell the readers what they need to know when there is no dialogue to go along with the visuals.
Various “balloons” represent variations in dialouge • Balloons with “tails” that usually trail to the speaker are comic staples and can move along dialogue as well as let the reader into the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Everything else is pretty much a visual medium.
Literary Themes • What are the common main ideas or controlling themes of a work of literature? • What does the work "mean"? Are there repeating patterns and symbols? • We study the main ideas of stories, and compare them to other works through history to discover what writers have to say about life, death, loneliness, sadness, hope, and other themes related to society, human nature, and beyond. • Comic books and graphic novels have all of this, and sometimes even a little bit of …
Diversity • The diversity in comics mirrors what is common in today’s society. From the misfits and outcasts of Marvel’s X-Men, to DC’s Poison Ivy, who is green, it would be difficult to find any group who cannot find a comic book character that they can relate to in some way.
Martha Washington Goes to War • A five-issue series published in 1994, and closely based on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Martha Washington Goes to War has Martha fighting for the PAX army to reunite the fractured United States. The war effort is undermined by frequent technology failures, the disappearances of America's brightest minds, and a general malaise among the people.
Japanese Manga • Ponyo, a female fish, runs away from her home in the sea and ends up stranded on the shore. Sosuke, a five-year-old boy who lives on a cliff, rescues her. He promises to protect Ponyo forever. Ponyo grows very fond of Sosuke, and with the help of her sisters and her father’s magic, she becomes human. This results in a great imbalance in the cosmos, causing great storms and floods and satellites to fall from the sky. Ponyo becomes a fish again and Sosuke promises to love her no matter what form she takes. In the end, when Ponyo kisses Sosuke, she becomes human again.
Of course, comic books and graphic novels are not limited to fiction. The text for the course ENG 223 Comic Books and Visual Literature is a graphic novel as well!
Curriculum Course Description: An analysis of the comic book in terms of its unique and complicated interplay of word and image, the themes that are suggested in various works, and the expectations of comic book readers. This course will examine the influence of history, culture, and economics on comic book artists and writers as well as explore definitions of “literature” and how these definitions apply to comic books. Course Objectives Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to; • 1. Demonstrate an understanding of the unique literary contribution of comic books and how these texts differ from other media, such as prose and film. • 2. Analyze representative works in order to interpret their styles, themes, and audience expectations, and compare and contrast the styles, themes, and audience expectations of works by several different artists/writers. • 3. Identify important historical, cultural, and economic factors that have influenced comic book artists/writers. • 4. Think critically about how literary value is defined and accorded to artistic works.
Student Assignments Course Requirements • Participation = 35 pts • Paper #1: Minimum 3 pages Compare and Contrast = 25 pts • Paper #2: Minimum 3 pages Literary Analysis of comic book or graphic novel = 30 pts • Final Group Project – create a comic book, or in-depth research on a writer or designer - PowerPoint or other media assisted presentation required = 50 pts