Essay: Why Comics?

Comics have undergone some of the most intense scrutiny and suppression in the history of literature and its many forms. Even today, graphic novels are constantly challenged by school communities and banned from readership, and some foreign events that promoted these books were shut down by armed militias. It sounds unbelievable, that in this year and time of progress such things could take place, but they do all the time. Each challenge is chronicled and fought by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, but it’s food for thought to think that comics would be discredited to a such a degree, especially the award winners and status-quo challengers that readers so often hail if told in a more typical prose format.

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http://www.CBLDF.org

In an effort to both further understand my deep love for comics and their revolutionary potential and to combat the wrongful objections placed against them, I asked my network of friends, teachers, writers, artists, co-workers and beyond: WHY Comics?

Really, why SHOULD we try to defend comics? Why is this medium so important to have available as an option, other than just for the sake of having it? The immediate reaction of this network, passionate, articulate, and diverse, was response enough to impress hopefully any nay-sayer, and I wanted to share some of this feedback with all of you as well. I’m of the opinion that comics can be used for almost any purpose you can imagine, but my bias temporarily avoided, let’s look at some very realistic applications that are already being used now for the better.

Education is profoundly necessary to every single living person in order to continue creating an evolutionary and prosperous society, but it is incredibly complicated in application because of the enormous range of psychological development humans can experience. There are many ways that we take in and preserve information, from social learning, solitary learning, logical, physical, aural, verbal, and the most important to this article, visual. All of these different methods of learning are uniquely important and indispensable, but visual learning, using images and spatial understanding, is where comics and graphic novels find a natural home. They can teach to your eyes what narrative is, create an overarching subtext both on single pages and full books, they marry the written word and optic picture to express sentiment in engaging ways.

One very useful and seldom considered example: the image accompanying the dialogue or narration helps to create a non-invasive physical representation of what social interactions should or should not look like. This can teach children how best to interact with others and treat them as they would want to be treated, to respect physical space, or use gesturing to convey what they might be struggling to speak out. Comics manifest motivation and aspirations for readers to see further, dig deeper, and using those images as example, be better versions of themselves. They can relate to the figures within comics, no matter how fantastical or supernatural the circumstances of the story are, and many graphic novelizations based on history or inspired by recent events can actually create a mirror for the reader to examine themselves in surprising ways. Well, most observers anyway. That’s why having representation of people of color, gender types, orientations and so on are so important, but that is a HUGE branching topic for another time.

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‘March’ Volume 1 by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

To apply this personally, in high school I was ashamed of how poorly I performed at mathematics, especially when I excelled in my other science courses. But until I began Geometry 101, I never realized the possibilities that different types of learning could offer anyone. Having equations visualized suddenly made them easier to process and solve, literally as if a switch had flipped and light was shed on the solutions once hidden. I’ve always been artistically inclined, a trait that I often think I’ve inherited through my grandmother and mother, and this was the start of my student-self realizing that if I struggled with a subject, what might happen if I changed the problems to visual representations? Suddenly I felt a lot smarter, and I think this same principle applies to many people with all the different learning methods.

Years later, our college courses were instructed to read several graphic novels, including the acclaimed ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman and ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi (which was also made into an award winning animated film), two books that would broaden my understanding of comics going forward; these images, metaphorical or literal in nature, spoke of moral lessons, historical events, as well as personal introspective in the course of rather quick reads. I started to reread my old X-Men comics, sift through the Sunday strips I’d saved as favorites, and I was suddenly recognizing just how much these comics were saying, despite a very constrained space to do so. In fact, there were things the comics were not explicitly pointing out in a dialogue bubble, that could be inferred in between existing panels, never shown, but still evident.

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‘Persepolis’: The Film based on the comic by Marjane Satrapi

The comic industry has some work to do to create comics that are both educational and fun for fans of all ages, especially early readers, but I like to imagine a not-so-distant future with wide selections of comics and manga that look at all sorts of genres, and excites anyone with a love of them. The education these books provide also lends astoundingly well to social interaction, which is why the comic/geek community seems to have such a diverse wealth of opinionated fans. A huge part of reading comics is followed by the desire to discuss, to break things down, to gush over a favorite character, to ponder what comes next. This is especially so for single issue comics, and while cost often unfortunately keeps readers from regular subscription services, there are still fans that love the reward and potential of that ‘To be continued…’ box.

With services like Netflix releasing full sums of TV shows all at once, it’s a nice thought for some to avoid the torture of a week’s wait for a season’s end, but realistically speaking, not everyone has the time to binge read an omnibus of Thor or Superman, especially when those characters have quite a history to chronicle through before you can potentially consider yourself ‘caught up’. It’s the reason that senior publishing companies like Marvel and DC reboot their universes every so often, or offer discounted ‘best of’ comics for fans, to find some sort of starting point. I beg for more of these as a retailer trying to show walk-in customers the wonderful world of comics and superheroes and the like, but each year resources do tend to grow to get new generations hooked into what makes this kind of reading so great.

Working in the comic industry, specifically working at a store-front, means that every day there’s a new discussion to be had. There’s the latest DC blockbuster film out, there’s a new upcoming and world-changing event in Avengers, there’s sudden indie hits that are selling issue one’s on Ebay for hundreds of bucks, but even beyond the latest news, there’s a genuine love for Batman facing his worst enemies, there’s nostalgic homage paid to classic artists in the new Nick Fury series, teenage drama in Archie, wacky and spooky adventures in Goosebumps comics. Sometimes people will mention the same series if it’s a big deal for all the major players in a publication line, but within a day I’m far more likely to talk with readers and fans who love Captain Canuck, My Little Pony, Doctor Who, and Guardians of the Galaxy all at once.

Again, the industry has growing yet to do, but it’s become such a saturated market that I can find just about anyone a comic they will enjoy, if they’re inclined to even try it for the first time. There are comics based on video games, movies, TV shows, even tabletop games! With an ever-reaching umbrella like that, it’s easy to see how the community of geekery has grown to such an extent that we have so many titles to choose from. The more readers, the more demand, the more variety.

 

And that’s just for the comics and the reading itself. If you want to think broader, try visiting a local comic convention sometime, whether a large, sponsored exhibition or a small trade show. There’s such an array of age groups, there’s readers but also just fans of the resulting media like shows and movies, dealers and collectors, retailers and customers alike, all in one space to celebrate (well, and some to make money naturally). Even within those fans and collectors, there’s people who come just to meet celebrities, there’s people who shop for specific toys from a specific brand release of a specific year, there’s cosplayers, tattoo enthusiasts, video gamers and roleplayers, the list literally goes on and on.

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New York Comic Con Exhibit Hall Show Floor

So aside from panels and discussions, there’s creator signings, conferences at colleges and local libraries, all experiences to bring fans of comics together to talk, make friends and enjoy the legacy of the medium. There are other interests that cater to their enthusiasts in the same way, but few can match the sheer numbers of many of these gatherings. Tokyo’s Comiket convention reached numbers near 600,000 in attendance last year, and there are hundreds more shows with similar themes, if not quite the same draw of fans, all over the world. Even still, that’s quite a lot of people coming together for something they enjoy, a sort of unprecedented conclave to not only boost the industry it caters to, but also to create new, returning fans for new publications. It’s all very cyclical in nature as long as that industry is willing to listen to feedback and adapt to its needs.

One of those needs that I’ve found to be most important is the social commentary that comics can offer to create more digestible representations of our human history, both the good and the bad involved with it. Comics are often called an ‘escape’ even though they just as often show representations of things happening in our current political climate and societal disputes. How does that even work?

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Batman Issue #44 by Scott Snyder and JOCK

Comics usually inhabit worlds where even characters without powers have some sort of destiny they’re fulfilling. They’re the focus of the story and they’ve got things to accomplish, from the simplicity of nailing a date to prom all the way up to saving the multiverse from cosmic destruction. In between those polar opposites, there’s things that realistically speaking, people WANT to do, but may not have the ability or resources to do themselves, ie. Superman stopping a disenfranchised gunman from shooting immigrants without legal citizenship, or Captain America infiltrating and stopping a White Supremacist faction from massacring a gathering of people in rural Nebraska. Comics can convey and motivate at least the message of what people as a group want to do, but are not sure how to accomplish. The deeper that comics are willing to discuss and take apart the problems of our society, the more creative and assorted kinds of dialogue we can open up to address them. Maybe we can’t shoot lasers from ours eyes or fly faster than a bullet, but we can take the principles we read and see from our story’s heroes and apply that to a political office, a charitable cause, and cultural programming.  

Consider just this handful of purposes that a comic can serve, and the reading experience is exponentially advanced. There are countless titles that take on this level of responsibility with purpose, and especially so through independent publications. This is precisely why I try to encourage all kinds of comics to readers and fans of superheroes; if you like the cosmic reach of Thor epics, or Guardians of the Galaxy, try Saga. If you get spooked by Harrow County, try Deadman! Let’s say you watch Star Trek, or Doctor Who, or Castle; there’s COMICS for all of those things. The covered genres expands with every month, every new release employing new talent. That’s possibly the best part of comics now; the world of visual representation doesn’t end. It can’t, really. There’s always something new to express, someone’s story to be told, or an important message to remind people of.

Maybe this was too long-winded a way to go about it, but my intent here was to remind people of the message of comics altogether. It’s important to have this format of media for the fun, the escape so to speak, but it’s just as important to have these books as teaching mechanisms, as origins of community and discussion, as well an exploration into the self and our surrounding society. The idea that you can take all of those applications combined and still enjoy a story of adventure and intrigue is, well, pretty rad.

 

 

I’d like to thank these fine people for their direct/indirect contributions to the article:

Craig Bass, Steven Brown, Timothy Brown, Amy Carani, Cory Carani, Guy Casper, Carmelo Chimera, Jon Clarke, Jules Clark, Jake DelMauro, Asia Dye, Richard Erb, Brian Fisher, Ryan Fleharty, Elise Forer, Marco Garcia, Michael Grossi, Gene Ha, Heidi Henning, Michael Hilger, Tarara Jay, Amanda Jule, Sara Kirkpatrick, Natalie Kopes, Lydia Koranda, Steven Langworthy, Dale Lazarov, Adrian Mateo, Phillip Niersbach, Rafael Nieves, Jason Peters, Peter Simeti, Brian Thomas, Bianca Walters, and Ashley Woods

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