As a long-standing fan of genre fiction, I’ve heard a million reasons why genre fiction is less important, less impressive, and less, well, literary than “regular” fiction. The most often cited defense are that it’s escapism, it’s fanciful, it’s not “realistic.” Just a few reasons I’ve heard why genre fiction is a waste of a reader’s time.

Now, I understand that genre fiction is not for all people — there are many people I love dearly who will never pick up a science fiction book, and I’m ok with that. But do not, do not tell me is a lesser piece of work. To be blunt, I pity those readers who will never stretch their minds with science fiction or fantasy, who never ask, “Why?,” or even more exciting, “What if it was this way?” What use is our imagination if we don’t use it to bend our own reality a little bit and see ourselves differently? And escapism? In two words, bite me.

All fiction, I don’t care what its literary merit, is escapism. It’s someone else’s vision of life, of the or a world, and it’s never going to be your life even if you write it. We all embroider and fudge our own recollections, never mind how entangled our own stories get with another author’s intentions on the page. Author and reader together create every reading of a story. Yes, it’s an escape, but it’s not always avoidance. Sometimes, you see things more clearly if they’re distorted through a warped mirror.

Now, you’re all wondering, what does this have to do with graphic novels? Well, I had hoped, when I became an unabashed fangirl, that I might be entering a new and invigorating format, and the community surrounding that new format might drop some of the old standards. For God’s sake, “realistic” fiction is in the minority in graphic novels. Mostly, I must admit, I have — creators in comics and graphic novels seem to be much more, “Let’s screw around with this!” than their literary counterparts often are.

Lately, however, I have noticed a disturbing trend both in the main media surrounding the new popularity of graphic novels and sadly, in comics review literature itself. That trend is this — that superheroes and superhero stories are the lesser genre, and that no self-respecting comics reader, let alone book reader, would ever really acknowledge that superheroes are the stuff of great literature. I’m tired of seeing superhero tales treated like the dim but well-meaning jock older brother, full of good intentions and energy but lacking any greater intellectual, emotional, or social nuance. Many readers will acknowledge the importance of superhero comics to the format, but seldom will anyone not add the proviso that the superhero genre has flattened and really can’t create any meaningful resonance anymore.

That’s just crap. Superheroes are the myths of the modern age, full of heroes and godlike beings. To be completely collegiate and invoke reading way too much postmodern theory, just like Bruno Bettleheim insisted there are fundamental and important uses for the enchantment of fairy tales, there are fundamental uses for superheroes too (and not necessarily in the Freudian sense, though you can find your share of that too.) To dismiss the genre is narrow-minded and pessimistic — just like every other format, there are sophmoric attempts at “art.” That doesn’t negate the sublety and richness that can be achieved in work by, for example, Warren Ellis during his Authority run, or Alan Moore’s masked vigilante in V for Vendetta, or, dare I invoke it’s great name, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

The saddest part of all this badmouthing is that those readers who are unfamiliar with the format are being told to avoid superhero stories, to instead embrace the “real” literature of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. There’s no sense of encouraging readers to at least attempt Watchmen — no no, instead feed them a steady diet of pessimistic commentary on modern life, just like the endless books written about the Breakdown of the American Family. I’m disappointed in readers of all sorts for not standing up and saying, “Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” I suppose I’ll always be disappointed with the general reading public for not stretching more than they do, but I had hoped for more from the comics readers attempting to bridge the gap.

You shouldn’t badmouth the less immediately appealing part of the work just to sell the rest. You should acknowledge the difficult sell and encourage a wee bit of flexibility. Maybe I expect too much. I hope not.

  • Robin B.

    | She/Her Teen Librarian, Public Library of Brookline

    Editor in Chief

    Robin E. Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has chaired the American Library Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee, the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, and served on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She is currently the President of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table for ALA. She was a judge for the 2007 Eisner awards, helped judge the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards in 2011, and contributes to the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. She regularly gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime at comics conventions including New York and San Diego Comic-Con and at the American Library Association’s conferences. Her guide, Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award.

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