Blogs > HNN > Comic Books as Literature

Dec 3, 2006 8:33 am

Comic Books as Literature

The dumbing down of American culture has now reached the stage that comic books are being treated as serious literature. In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Meghan Cox Gordon, we learn that the “graphic-fiction” market is so large that Publisher’s Weekly has inaugurated a comics best-seller list. Major publishers are racing to sign up the latest “hot” comic books. And for the first time, a “graphic novel” has been nominated for a prestigious National Book Award. Gordon writes, “for many parents and teachers, the profusion of what are essentially picture books for older children (and adults) is a depressing indicator of how rapidly the printed word seems to be losing influence to the world of whiz-bang visuals.”

Television and the movies are in part responsible for the trend, of course, and so is the Internet. The written page is losing ground almost everywhere to text arranged around the visual. The effects may be seen in the classroom, Gordon reports, “where, anecdote suggests, children are finding it harder to engage with books that serve up language in anything more than easy-to-digest, cartoon-balloon dollops.”

When I was in college, a great many freshmen studied the famed American history textbook by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager. The prose of each fact-filled paragraph was elegant and often moving. There were only a handful of photographs in the book. Professors routinely assigned primary sources to supplement the textbook, enabling us to enter the past ourselves. We students were there to learn, and that meant from the written word and lectures. No one showed movies in class.

In the early 1960s, the American history textbook by Richard Current, T. Harry Williams, and Frank Freidel contained many photographs, but the writing and analysis were still first-rate. The photos complimented the text and helped young people visualize the stories they encountered. In the mid-1960s, photographs and art work became almost the equal of the text in John Garraty’s best-selling The American Nation. The writing was a bit more bland (e.g. his account of JFK), but Garraty was a formidable historian and the essentials of our history remained firmly embedded in the text.

Today, few college graduates even take American history, in large part because it isn’t required. Reaching the often diffident young people who do take your course can be challenging. Students live in a world dominated by the media, of course, and many if not most professors think it wise to use films, slides, and Internet websites as well as the written and spoken word in class. But this practice does little, in my experience, to enhance student literacy and encourage the life-long practice of reading and writing (a central reason for the liberal arts). Wilfred M. McClay has observed, “Computers and cell phones, along with a host of ever more powerful simulations of reality, have become the media in which we ‘live and move and have our being.’ And the consequence of this technological regime are almost entirely pernicious for the life of the mind.”

Colleges and universities routinely graduate people who, apparently, have no love of great books, little or no knowledge of the past, and practically no desire to know anything beyond what will bring them more cash and prestige. James B. Twitchell, in a piece published in the Summer, 2004 Wilson Quarterly, writes “College has become what high school used to be, and thanks to grade inflation, it’s almost impossible to flunk out.” The National Assessment of Literacy report issued in December, 2005 revealed that only 31% of college graduates studied were proficient in comprehending prose. In 2006, the National Civic Literacy Board of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute discovered, following a study of 14,000 students at 50 schools, that at many colleges and universities seniors know less than freshmen about American history, foreign affairs, and the economy.

Little wonder that the Wisconsin Historical Society decided to stop reviewing or even mentioning new books in its historical magazine. No one should be surprised by the embarrassing collection of nonsense atop the best-selling non-fiction list. The sharp decrease in newspaper book reviews is fashionable and predictable. We have come to the point in our decline as a culture where the comic book is literature. Gordon concludes, “perhaps we are already evolving into a kind of semi-literate society in which children will never feel the need to outgrow picture books because, even when they become adults, their books will still have exciting, action-packed pictures and speech bubbles to show who’s talking.”

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Jonathan Dresner - 12/27/2006

Comics do nothing whatever of the sort

Of course they do, just with a different balance of modes.

"Classical" literature is taught in translation all the time: how is this really different than another translation?

James Patrick Buechele - 12/27/2006

I find it sad that the only comments so far have been little more than a polemic against Mr. Reeves' cutting and correct remarks regarding the state of American tertiary education. I shall compress my comments thusly: if for no other reason, the classics must be taught in prose rather than in 'comic' form because such instruction teaches young minds (and old, I suspect), to read - that is, it enables them to correctly address these three questions: what does it say, what does it mean, and what difference does it make? Comics do nothing whatever of the sort, and to rely upon them is dangerous for a number of reasons, chief among which is the considerable lack of a body of language to be explored and analyzed. (If one cannot learn to do this, then one will find oneself manipulated at all points by those who have had a superior education) A close second: the comic's author's interpretation is presented at the forefront of the work, and this interpretation is made all the more impenatrable by the mere assignment of pictures to what the 'artist' deems to be the correct interpretation.

Tim Lacy - 12/6/2006

Dear Prof. Reeves and Mr. Dresner:

I recently commented on an aspect of this debate this at my discussion site. My original post was instigated by a Chicago Tribune story about Great Books being made into graphic novels. Here are the links (in chronological order):




Jonathan Dresner - 12/3/2006

There doesn't seem to be a noun form for "crotchety": "What crotchet!" just doesn't sound right.

Mr. Reeves believes in great narrative literature, and great art. But he doesn't believe they can be melded together. Done well, the results are fantastic and distinctive.

But then, the waltz was new and risque, once.