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Tyson Johnson
Professor Tyler Barnum
English 2010
March 4, 2016

Are Comics Literature?


What is a comic book? Is it a childrens book, an art book, or a form of literature? There
are many varying opinions about the literary validity of comics and whether or not they deserve
to be on the same level as great English classics. In recent years the comic medium has become
more and more popular and quite influential in the rising youth and many have come to question
whether or not comic books should be introduced as common literature. Before we can
determine whether a comic is a literary format we must first understand what it truly is.
A comic book has a very vague definition and is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly
what it is because of its varying formats. Scott Mcloud, in his work Understanding Comics,
quotes Will Eisner, stating that a comic is Sequential Art. According to Mr. Eisners definition,
we can determine that a comic is various works of art explained through narrative. This is what
causes a lot of dispute among scholars. Since a comic is a combination of two differing
mediums, unlike the rest of literature, it causes many to believe that comics cannot be considered
literature due to this small difference.
The majority of people believe that comics began in the early 19th century but comic
origins trace back much further. Mclouds research finds that some of the earliest beginnings of

comics date back to 1519. Cortes discovered some sequential art created by the indigenous
people of the Americas containing both verbal and visual mediums (Mcloud 10). Even before the
times of Cortes, tapestries of similar format have been discovered such as the French Bayeux
Tapestry depicting the conquest of England in 1066 AD (Mcloud 12). This form of
communication was most likely one of the first forms of written narrative for almost all early
civilizations including: Native Americans, Early Europeans, Egyptians, and many Asian
civilizations.
These illustrious examples prove that comic writing is not a modern form of narrative but
one that has been around for many centuries. It helps to demonstrate that sequential art has
been a part of humanity longer than many other forms of media including modern literature
itself. If visual narrative was such a staple of communication for so long how did it lose its
literary validity? Modern research shows that as humanity developed so did writing, and comics
began to be seen as a more primitive form of writing (Mcloud 21). This is the idea that deludes
many modern researchers to discredit the hybrid medium of comics as modern literature.
While not all films, novels, and paintings are great works of art, comics are no exception.
This is one of the reasons why comics are commonly overlooked as literary works. There are
many comics written and drawn that are not great works, but arent there some that are great? In
Aaron Meskins article, Comics as Literature, he explains that hundreds of comics are written
each month of which many are mediocre, but there are clear cases of well written works (Meskin
6). Just as has been done with other great works of literature, we need to search diligently to
discover which works deserve the title of literature and which do not.

Another issue that arises from the comic debate is that if a comic is to be considered a
work of literature its visual elements must be discredited. Meskin argues that this view causes
many problems because it blatantly ignores the other half of the hybrid medium (Meskin 6).
Ignoring half of a comic is like watching a movie without sound. Both parts make up the
narrative. Oversighting one half can only provide a skewed view of the work as it requires both
halves in order to complete its unique form.
Comics can be commonly found in various bookstores under the more known title of
Graphic Novel and are even being studied in literature classes across the United States
(Meskin 1). After all, comics are filled with words, so is it not possible that at least some of them
could be literature? Samantha Cleaver, an instructor for younger children, states in her article,
Comics and Graphic Novels, that comics were once frowned upon and children caught reading
them were commonly punished. Now days, comics are regarded more and more as a great source
for teaching. Of course, not all comics should be read by younger children but, Cleaver has seen
that a comics use of verbal and visual stimuli is more engaging to young readers and can prove
to be a very useful resource in furthering education for the youth of today (Cleaver 1).
There are other instructors like Samantha Cleaver who are willing to give comics a try
but there appear to be many more scholars who do not agree with Ms. Cleavers ideals. Most
literature classes focus on reading material such as Tom Sawyer, The Grapes of Wrath, Pride and
Prejudice, and many more great works. What is that makes these works so great? The values that
define great literature are that it is well-written, having depth of characterization, and being well
plotted (Meskin 2). So, are comics incapable of possessing these qualities?

Art Spiegelmans Maus, and Alan Moores Watchmen are just a few examples of comics
commonly studied and examined in schools and universities throughout the United States.
Spiegelmans unique art style helps to tell the story of the Holocaust in a new, eye-opening way
that had not been seen before while Moores precise structure creates a story whose narrative
surpasses many other works of a similar caliber (Meskin 2). These two influential works are
proof that a comic can possess the qualities of great literature shows us that a literatures format
is not the defining characteristic.
Regrettably, many scholars and philosophers such as David Wolk criticize comics and
graphic novels stating: They bear a strong resemblance to literature they use words, theyre
printed in books, they have narrative content but theyre no more a literary form than movies
or opera are literary forms. Wolks opinion on comics is very harsh and direct but there are
others with similar viewpoints. Many other scholars study graphic novels as something that is
similar to literature but doesnt quite meet all expectations (Meskin 5). This meaning that they
are considered more as works of art rather than literature.
Arguing against these theories, Meskin quotes an essay by legendary comic writer Alan
Moore which argues:
With the best will in the world, if you try to describe the Dazzler graphic novel
in the same terms as you describe Moby Dick then youre simply asking for
trouble. As opposed to films without movement or sound we get novels without
scope, depth or purpose. That isnt good enough either. . . . Rather than seizing
upon the superficial similarities between comics and films or comics and books in
the hope that some of the respectability of those media will rub off upon us,

wouldnt it be more constructive to focus our attention upon those ideas where
comics are special and unique?
Moores words help open up a new viewpoint on comics. Why must we compare one
work to another? Doing so will only cause problems and conflict. Instead of comparing, as
Moore states, each piece should be examined individually to determine its literary qualities and
whether or not it can be considered a work of literature or not. The format of the work is not
what should be analyzed, rather its method of writing, characterization depth, and how well it is
plotted (Meskin 2).
Meskins arguments on comics are quite clear and do point out some insight as to why
they are literary works. Hannah Miodrag, in her article Narrative, language, and comics-asliterature, she recognizes Meskins work but argues that the fault with his description of
literature is that comics can tell a story as effectively as prose. While this may be true for some
comics, Miodrag explains that what is being implied is that the visuals are what make the work
literary (Miodrag 1). This clarification helps to understand that in order for comics to be
literature the narrative is what must be examined, not the visual medium.
Continuing with her analysis, Miodrag states that the visual medium of the comic is
important to its form and function but it is merely a method of storytelling. Claiming that comics
are literary because they tell stories is a false accusation, says Miodrag (Miodrag 1). This
accusation cannot be true because that would imply that all storytelling is literature, meaning that
cave art, oral storytelling, and other methods of storytelling would also have to be considered
literature even though they do not fit Meskins definition of literature.

The storytelling problem that Miodrag addresses most fiercely is the fact that comics
critics commonly ignore the formal qualities of comics textual content. Miodrag continues by
saying that comics frequently produce well-crafted literary writing, but this is commonly
overlooked and rarely evaluated. This causes a disservice to the comic medium as storytelling is
an important part of literature in its many shapes and styles (Miodrag 2).
Miodrags conflicting views of literature seem difficult to get past but Miodrag continues
with her article explaining that perhaps it is not the definition of comics that is the problem, but
the definition of literature itself. As stated earlier a work of literature is defined as a work of
well-crafted narrative. Following this regime, A. David Lewis points out that just about anything
can be narrative: a ballet performance, a hospital chart, or even a stock market report (Miodrag
1). Even though all of the before mentioned examples vary widely in presentation, form, and
purpose they can all be considered forms of literature. Just because a certain narrative is written
differently than another does not necessarily signify its unquestionable disqualification from the
literary regime. It is simply another medium for fulfilling the same purpose.
With this new viewpoint in mind, comics can most definitely fit into the category of
literature so much as they maintain the formal narrative required. Although both comics and
literature both tell stories this does not inquire that all comics should be considered as literature
but it would be a disservice to the medium, as well as its creators, to not consider some as
literary works (Miodrag 2).
There are many writers and artists that work hard to tell a great story through the
combined elements of verbal and visual narrative. It would be unfair to ignore these creators
work simply based on the works style of presentation. Though the debate rages on, there is still

much to discuss about the fine details of whether or not comics can, or should be, considered
literature. Even though there is still much to learn I think that we can be satisfied with Meskins,
Miodrags, and McClouds analysis that each works literary qualities should be considered
individually rather than attempting to define the comic medium as a whole. Charles Hatfield has
recently suggested that the graphic novel in particular has become comics passport to
recognition as a form of literature (Meskin 5). It will take years, more than likely, for comics to
be considered equals in the literary world, but as time progresses we can only hope that comics
and graphic novels will begin to see more and more recognition as well-crafted works of
literature.

Works Cited

Chute, Hillary.
"Comics as literature? Reading graphic narrative." PMLA123.2 (2008): 452-465.
Cleaver, Samantha.
"Comics & Graphic Novels." Instructor 117.6 (2008): 28.
Mcloud, Scott.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. (1993)
Meskin, Aaron.
"Comics as literature?." The British Journal of Aesthetics(2009): ayp025.
Meskin, Aaron.
"The philosophy of comics." Philosophy Compass 6.12 (2011): 854-864.
Miodrag, Hannah.
"Narrative, language, and comics-as-literature." Studies in Comics 2.2 (2012): 263-279.