I was once just like you! Once, long ago, I was just as puzzled by the devoted fans of comics and graphic novels. Could they really be that good? I had read Maus in high school, but I didn’t even connect that it was a graphic novel. Then, one fateful day, I read Pedro and Me. I was amazed. I had no idea a graphic novel could be that powerful, never mind that it made me both laugh out loud and cry (and I do not cry easily at books!) There is a preconception surrounding comics and graphic novels — that comics are childish, simple, and not comparable to literature. Now, I won’t get on a soapbox here, but comics and graphic novels are just as complex, evocative, and involving as any good book or film you might encounter. They tackle the same issues as books. They are equally as well written as books. They include first-class artwork. Comics and graphic novels and manga are simply another way to tell a story, like film or television or audiobooks or opera. They are not meant to replace or be better than any other format. They’re just another way to get a story. Try not to think of the comics and graphic novels as only comics — think of them instead as a story about something you find interesting. Like fairy tales? Try Castle Waiting or Rapunzel’s Revenge. Like memoirs? Try Fun Home or Persepolis.
Aren’t they all just superhero stories?
Resoundingly no! Comics and graphic novels come in every genre any other format does — as you can see from my site’s subject categories, there are many titles in anything from memoirs to mysteries. I’m only touching on the tip of the iceberg here — there are pretty much graphic novels on almost every topic there are books on. For an example, one of the most famous graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, won the Pulitzer Prize and is widely recognized as an important memoir of the Holocaust. Right now, there’s a grand boom in the comic and graphic novel industry, so you all are getting more and more quality titles than have been widely available before.
I’ve heard that comics don’t represent women well. Is that true?
In the past, as with other 20th century media including film, women were not always portrayed well. Be aware that some collections of comics from the 30s onward may well have a less than empowering take on women, on ethnicity, on society in general, and on sexuality. Remember, though, someone like Lois Lane was very much based on the the fast-talking dames of the 40s, like Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell. Those women were far from meek, and Lois is very much of the same breed. Who else could tackle Superman? Over time, comics have definitely changed for the better. Female artists, writers, and characters are gaining as much ground as women in the film industry. Women are portrayed with strength, intelligence, and independence. Titles like Birds of Prey are leading onward into the future. Same goes for superheroes of different ethnicities and backgrounds. If you’d like to see a list of titles with strong female leads, check out the Strong Girls List.
How can I show the naysayers out there that comics and graphic novels are worth reading?
A few statistics and comments:
In terms of literacy, graphic novels and comics books typically have vocabulary that’s twice as complex as what’s in a children’s chapter book and is three times as complex as when adults have a conversation with children. This is from Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading.
Readers are able to read one full grade level higher in graphic novels than when they read prose because of the support the images provide in understanding the story.
Seeing literary devices in comics, including flashbacks, point of view, and such played out in visuals leads readers to see more clearly the same devices used in prose literature and critique how they are used.
Graphic novels and manga require a complex, active literacy to read (reading in between the panels) requiring readers to do a lot of work to create the story from its component parts — see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for more info.
Remember, too, that graphic novels (and comics, and manga) are not meant to replace books or any other format. Anyone who’s read a book and a graphic novel knows the experience is very different in each medium. It’s another way to get a story, and it’s not better or worse than any other mode of storytelling.
I’ve heard that comics are really only for teenage guys. Is that true?
Comics do have a special appeal for guys, and teenagers, partially because for a long time now (over 40 years) the bulk of the industry and the creators are guys themselves who are having a blast writing to attract that key demographic — teenage guys. And to be honest, teenage guys don’t read as much as teenage girls, generally, so anything that makes them excited about reading is a plus in my book.
The key connection between young male readers and comics (whatever form they take, from comic books to bound volumes to webcomics) is that they make reading appealing, engaging, and satisfying. If a guy is not a natural reader, and thus will likely be more frustrated than transported by many classics avid readers recommend, comics represent a great story that they can read on their own, and that still gives the joy of discovering another world. Even if a guy is a natural reader, as guys pass into their teen years, reading becomes a far less cool thing to be doing. Comics, now including Japanese manga, represent a widespread and still “cool” way to read that will in turn keep the spark of enjoying reading alive even as teens dread assigned reading and classic novels. When they’re ready, they’ll remember that reading can be fun, and will gradually branch out into other formats, from traditional prose to poetry to television and films.
Comics at this point, however, are far from just for guys. The same magic happens for any reader, and the gendered audience is becoming less and less true as comics come from more and more diverse sources including publishers in Japan (who produce comics for both girls and guys as a matter of course), independent comics publishers, and traditional book publishers.