In Praise of Comic Books
On what makes comic books special, and an argument against calling them "graphic novels".
When I was growing up, comic books were a major food group in my literary diet. At my youngest, they were the perfect bridge between picture books and the written word, part of the primitive period of moving from finger paintings to signing my crayon-scribbled name on my drawings. In my origin story, the short comic strips in the Sunday funnies aided this transition, teaching me to associate the squares of imagery with lines of text.
Comic books trained my eye to slow down, rather than skipping from page to page in a rush to the end. They taught me this patience through the artistry of their pictures, which were more advanced than the illustrations in simplified storybooks for first readers. Even in Hergé’s Tintin comics, which he famously kept minimalistic, there were full-page panels that contained so much detail that I’d drop onto my stomach, spread the book wide open on the floor, and get close up to take in the background characters, the subplots with Snowy the dog chasing something in a corner of the image, or the telling details Hergé had drawn to make his world feel full and lived-in.
The filmmaker Charlie Kaufman once described film as a “dead” medium because it is captured once and forever. It’s therefore the responsibility of filmmakers to build in ambiguities that lend themselves to multiple interpretations, to keep the film “alive”. The same is true of literature. It was in comics that I first discovered this living quality, when I returned to the same comic books again and again, because I’d focused on the text in the first run and now wanted to experience the story as told in the drawings, or to take my time over puzzling out the mechanics of the mystery (noticing, for instance, the shadowy figure lurking in the background of a panel, whom I’d missed the first time), or to ask my dad to explain the historical jokes in Asterix the Gaul.
As I grew a little older, comics taught me a lot about subtext. Tintin might interrogate a suspect who would say one thing, while his expression or body language said another. Asterix would make a declaration wholly ignorant of something happening behind him, something that might have unexpected relevance to our hero’s intentions. In the clash between what I saw in the pictures and what I read in the words, I learned that speech – and therefore all language, including written language – could be untrue, or partially true, or humorously at odds with a plain fact. This was my introduction to irony.
As I entered my teenage years, I was introduced to the two types of comic book that would accompany me through pubescence (a time in which comics were increasingly swapped out for the novels of Michael Crichton, then Nick Hornby, then Austen, Kerouac, and Fitzgerald). When I was thirteen, I stayed with my grandparents on Vancouver Island, and my aunt took me to the cinema to see the recently released X-Men movie. This was how I met the mutants who would fight, exclaim, teleport, and transform across the pages of comic books I began buying from my local newsagent.
On that same trip to Vancouver Island, my aunt took me to the library, where my brother and I discovered a collection of comic strips by an artist named Bill Watterson. Calvin and his tiger, Hobbes, made me laugh like nothing I’d ever read before (and few things I’ve read since). More than that, their adventures spoke to me more profoundly than the adventures of Wolverine, Spiderman, and Captain America. If the X-Men portrayed superheroes I wished I could be, Calvin and Hobbes showed me the kind of boy I was. And that kind of boy was remarkably lonely. Seeing myself on the page, seeing my strange way of viewing the world rendered in fantastical and yet somehow realistic cartoons, and being made to laugh at these depictions, made me feel less alone.
One of my all-time favourite stories from Calvin and Hobbes is a full-page strip that depicts Calvin’s struggle through a rainy school day. In one frame, Calvin’s mother has burst into his room, forcing her still-sleepy son to emerge from his dreams into the stormy day ahead of him. In the next panel, Calvin waits alone for the school bus, rain pummelling him and puddling around his soggy shoes. In a later panel, a bored Calvin sits at his desk, still alone, lonely, miserable. Then we see a bully robbing him of his lunch money. Then we find him in class again, collapsed on his desk, a large F scrawled on his homework. As we near the end of the strip, Calvin trudges home, the rain still hammering down, his shoulders slumped. Then – Hobbes bursts out of the house, wrestling him into a muddy hug. In the final panel, Calvin walks past his mother, Hobbes in his arms, a huge smile on Calvin’s face. “Good day?” his mum asks. “Getting better,” he says.
That no description can come close to capturing the magic of this strip is precisely the point. As Charles Schulz writes in his brief foreword to The Essential Cavin and Hobbes, the artwork of a comic strip “is infinitely more important than we may think ... and if a cartoonist does nothing more than illustrate a joke, he or she is going to lose”. The art of the great comic strip is made up of “pictures that cannot be duplicated in other mediums”. As I’ve been thinking about what it is that these pictures uniquely do, I’ve been reminded of an idea variously attributed to Yip Harburg, Claude Debussy, and Hans Christian Anderson, and expressed in a variety of ways, one of which is: “Where words fail, music begins.”
It might be that music enjoys the most direct path to the soul because it need not be filtered or translated along the way. When we read a novel or a poem, the ideas and feelings of the author must be turned into words that we read and convert back into ideas and feelings. When we look at a painting, to get anything more meaningful than a gut reaction from it, we must interpret the language of its symbols. But when we hear music, it’s not merely that certain notes and scales, or harmonies and disharmonies, stand in for emotions, but that in some sense they are those emotions. A song even without lyrics can “be” sad, or happy, or melancholic. Yip Harburg once said that “words make you think a thought, while music makes you feel a feeling”. Music is able to communicate experience rather than ideas, and I think something very close to this occurs in the best artwork of the best comic books, including Calvin and Hobbes.
Something in Watterson’s drawings performs a certain magic, a form of time-travel, so that for an instant I am not my adult self, understanding that Calvin is miserable about going to school; instead, I am a young boy feeling the cold rain sneaking around the hood of my jacket to nastily crawl down the back of my neck, feeling the heavy dread in my stomach at the prospect of bullies and detentions, feeling the myopic sense that everything everywhere is no good because I have to go to school. All of this is achieved with just some ink and a few lines in a single box on the page.
Now that I am ostensibly a grown-up, I don’t read as many comic books as I used to. Not because I believe comic books aren’t for self-respecting adults; as with all books, some are and some aren’t. For a while, I only re-read comic books from my youth if I needed a non-demanding pick-me-up, or for a fix of my favourite vice, nostalgia. But then I discovered the work of Craig Thompson, which matches the complexity of my favourite novels but does so with the unique qualities of the comic book medium. Thompson’s Blankets is one of the finest examinations of a fundamentalist upbringing I have ever read. It’s often painfully funny, sometimes simply painful, and always a revelation. From there, I discovered Maus by Art Spiegelman; then the two-volume tale of a girl in revolutionary Iran and her escape to the West in Persepolis; then the understated stories of everyday drama by Adrian Tomine.
We are frequently enjoined by well-meaning if misguided fans of the form to refer to works like these not as “comic books” but as “graphic novels”. I refuse to do this on two grounds. The first is simple, subjective, and not all that serious, so dismiss it as freely as you like. I prefer to call them comic books because I grew up with that phrase and it has positive connotations for me. As I said before, nostalgia is my drug of choice. The second and serious objection is that “graphic novel” implies that the work in your hands is a novel like any other except that it deals in images as much as or even more than words. This is to think of a comic book as little more than an illustrated novel, which is not only disingenuous, it rather undermines the unique qualities of the form that make it distinct from novels.
Think of it this way: a short story is properly labelled as such because its main distinguishing feature is that it is much shorter than a novel. Its brevity aside, a short story utilises and traffics in the same structures and aspects of craft that a novel does. A poem, by contrast, cannot usefully be called a short story because the relative length of most poems compared to most novels is incidental. A poem does very different things to a novel, all of which are summarily and unduly disregarded by the label of “short story”. I’d argue that a comic book is as distinct from a novel as a poem is, possibly more so.
Beneath the urge to give comic books a more “prestige” name like “graphic novel” is the desire to distinguish the ones we think of as truly artistic, literary, grown-up, from the sillier fare that teenagers consume. This is as redundant as the empty label of “literary fiction”, which tells you nothing more than that the person applying it thinks this is a quality book. But why should we use reductive terms to let ourselves off the hook of having to think about and communicate why we think a novel, a movie, or a comic book is – to use the cheap words – “good” or “bad”?
And let’s be clear, in case my argument is misconstrued, that there are definitely comic books that provide little more than escapism, or that deal in cliché and bromides, or that simply aren’t very well made. But the immaturity and emptiness of certain superhero comics doesn’t undermine the entire medium, just as the Twilight books don’t invalidate all novels. Equally, my defence of the work of artists such as Marjane Satrapi or Art Spiegelman is not necessarily a defence of Spiderman comics. Why is that we all recognise various levels of quality and accomplishment within literature and cinema, yet many of us are incapable of seeing the same within the medium of comic books?
In the afterword to the tenth-anniversary collection of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson writes that “the best comics (like the best novels, paintings, etc.) are personal, idiosyncratic works that reflect a unique and honest sensibility”. He goes on:
“To attract and keep an audience, art must entertain, but the significance of any art lies in its ability to express truths – to reveal and help us understand our world. Comic strips, in their own humble way, are capable of doing this.”
When I was young, comics were a bridge between the books that taught me to read and the more advanced books that taught me to read for understanding, for growth, and for fun. In this capacity, comic books bridged the distance between childhood and maturity. But it would be a mistake to treat comics only as a stepping stone towards other forms of literature. Comics can do things that novels cannot, and we should value those things as highly as we value the particular charms and insights of other media.
Comics can manifest how it feels to be six, show us the world through the eyes of an animal, can literalise the mind of a dreamer. Comic books can hyperbolise reality in just the way our memories do, to show us the world not as science describes it, but as loving, hurting, complicated humans experience it. “The best comics,” Watterson tells us, “are fun house mirrors that distort appearances only to help us recognise, and laugh at, our essential characteristics.”
This is the truth of the matter and that which is most overlooked by those who dismiss the entire medium: we don’t outgrow comic books – they are part of how we grow.
• Charlie Kaufman on his latest film & why “movies are dead”, WGA West [YouTube] (2008)
• The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson (1992)
• The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson (1988)
• The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, Bill Watterson (1987)