Graphic Novels as Literature: Overcoming a Stereotype

Introduction: The Burial of Previous Conceptions

Way back through my back pages, in those idyllic days of high school, I first encountered graphic novels. A friend of mine (my boss at the time, actually) lent me a copy of Alan Moore’s From Hell, a serial that explores the idea that Jack the Ripper was in fact a product of his times, not simply a one-shot mass-murderer. Until this point, I had thought of the graphic novel medium — illustrated panels and frames, dialogue bubbles, and maybe a few onomatopoeic words — in the same way that I’d thought of all comic books in general: silly, trite works that hack writers produced for little boys and immature men. In short, I viewed the graphic novel medium as though it had never left the Golden Age of comic books — the time from the 1930s through the 1950s when superheroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al, were first introduced. But From Hell proved me wrong, for that work, though written in the same medium as those campy superhero series from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, presents a serious and mature discussion about a complex idea over the course of a wholly engrossing narrative. It wasn’t simply a comic book about a hero beating up a bad guy; it was a comic book that actively examined the human condition.


Cover of the 'From Hell' graphic novel; artwork by Eddie Campbell

But to me at that point, From Hell was just a diamond in the rough, a work that stood out amongst its campy peers in the comic book medium. The term “graphic novel” had only glanced off the surface of my understanding of literature, and I still considered comic books in general to be as mundane and predictable as a Danielle Steele romance novel. And then came Watchmen. I found it at Border’s in the comic book section, which I was perusing to see if I could find my own copy of From Hell. I didn’t find that graphic novel, but I did find Moore’s other masterpiece. Its simple cover, with a splotch of blood dripping down a brilliantly yellow smiley face, enticed me to open the book, upon which I could not put it down. From Rorschach’s opening monologue, I was hooked:

Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985:

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.

The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”…

…And I”l look down, and whisper “No.”

Who was this Rorschach guy? Clearly, he was a superhero of some sort, but one unlike any Superman or Batman I had heretofore heard of: he was disdainful of his city, and he was refusing to save its citizens! The twist was too much for me to pass over, and the book became mine. I finished it — all 436 pages of it — in two days, and I relished every narrative complexity, every song quote, and every allusion to traditional literary heavy-weights like William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Watchmen effectively buried my previous conceptions of the comic book medium, and it whet my appetite for other works like it.

Cover for the 'Watchmen' graphic novel; artwork by Dave Gibbons

The friend who had lent me From Hell led me to Frank Miller, who, like Alan Moore, wrote “comic books” that defied the genre’s campy stereotype. Curious about how a traditional superhero could be depicted in this darker, more literary-intense comic book medium, I turned to Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, respectively. My suspicions were confirmed: I saw the cheesy Batman from the 1960s Adam West TV show nowhere to be found; this Batman seemed as though he could be real, and he was fighting crime for a reason, not just because he could. These Batman graphic novels were in no way what I had initially perceived as silly, trite comic books that hack writers produced for little boys and immature men. Like From Hell and Watchmen, these two Batman stories showed me that the medium was as capable of exploring interesting, real-life ideas as any poem or piece of prose.

Cover for the 'Batman: Year One' graphic novel; artwork by David Mazzucchelli

From that point on, I read graphic novels — as I now referred to them — as often as I read traditional works of literature. To be sure, I came upon some major misses (e.g., The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller’s silly and pointless sequel to The Dark Knight Returns), but then again, there are consistently many major misses in the traditional literary medium, too. Thus, I came to see that graphic novels are as valid as works of literature as any unillustrated short story, novel, or poem. Sure, I found some excitement in Inspector Abberline’s investigations of the Jack the Ripper murders, in the unraveling of the Watchmen narrative thread, and in Batman’s predictable fisticuffs; but in the end, I found much more enjoyment in these narratives’ depictions of the human condition. Indeed, any reader may count him- or herself lucky if they encounter such complex and satisfying works of literature as these.

Graphic Novels as Literature: An Objective Test

Alas, my anecdotal conclusions are not objective enough to satisfy any serious study of graphic novels as literature, so let’s put my conclusions to a scientific test:

To test my hypothesis that graphic novels can be quantified as “serious” literature, let us first propose a set of fundamental aspects that encompass what is acknowledged as literature in general:

*The work contains some amount of writing, ranging from single lines of poetry or sentences of prose to extensive, voluminous amounts.

*The work is quantifiable within one of the four rhetorical modes: exposition; argumentation; description; or narration. If the work is a narrative, it is quantifiable as either fiction or nonfiction.

*If a narrative (whether fiction or nonfiction), the work contains a logical conflict (or conflicts), a cohesive plot structure, relatable characters, and a variety of effective literary elements, such as foreshadowing, allusion, and symbolism.

*The work transcends the culture and time period in which it was written and enjoys easy application within other cultures and time periods.

Admittedly, the first three aspects are quite vague and encompass many forms of writing that do not count as “serious” literature. Thus, our objective test hinges on the final aspect: the work’s universality.

*The work contains some amount of writing, ranging from single lines of poetry or sentences of prose to extensive, voluminous amounts.

Graphic novels — even the campy superhero comics from the Golden Age — contain writing, be that in boxes meant to encompass a narration, in dialogue bubbles, or in those onomatopoeic “sound effects” like “BAM!”, “POW!”, et al.

*The work is quantifiable within one of the four rhetorical modes: exposition; argumentation; description; or narration. If the work is a narrative, it is quantifiable as either fiction or nonfiction.

In theory, any graphic novel  could be expository, argumentative, or straightforwardly descriptive (in which case we couldn’t truthfully call it a “graphic novel“), but it is safe to say that the majority of graphic novels out there are narratives. Thus, we have “The Adventures of Superman” instead of “How Superman Works,” “Superman’s Credo,” or “The Descriptions of Superman.”

*If a narrative (whether fiction or nonfiction), the work contains a logical conflict (or conflicts), a cohesive plot structure, relatable characters, and a variety of effective literary elements, such as foreshadowing, allusion, and symbolism.

As I mentioned earlier, the first graphic novels I read — From Hell, Watchmen, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns — all function as complex narratives, rich with intricate plot structures, engaging characterization, and a wide usage of literary elements, particularly symbolism. But — as with traditional narratives — not all graphic novels successfully achieve a cohesive plot structure, for instance, or provide relatable characters. Thus, with this aspect (and with the following one), one has to judge whether graphic novels individually encompass this descriptor. Certainly, the four I mention above do. (See the Appendix for a list of other graphic novels that I judge to meet all four of these criteria.)

*The work transcends the culture and time period in which it was written and enjoys easy application within other cultures and time periods.

And we come at last to the most difficult — and yet most vital — aspect for a work of literature to attain in order to be quantified as “serious.”

Literary critic Harold Bloom spends the entirety of his literature study, The Western Canon, arguing that certain works are great because they transcend their cultures and time periods and elicit universal responses in readers. For example, the majority of Shakespeare’s body of work is universal because anyone from any culture or time periods can read (or view) a play like Hamlet and feel a variety of feelings for the different characters. Works that engender certain political beliefs — even narratives — are not ultimately universal because they reflect beliefs of the time periods in which they were written. (Take, for instance, much of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry, which in a few hundred years will tell us a great deal about the political roles of women and African-Americans in the 20th Century, but will tell us little about the universal human condition.)

Can graphic novels transcend their time periods? Or do they simply remain exemplars of the cultures and time periods that produce them? As with the previous aspect in our criteria, I would argue that one has to judge whether graphic novels individually encompass this descriptor. The majority of comic books from the Golden Age would seem to be straightforward “time pieces” that describe the culture of America in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, particularly the creation of superheroes who could save America from the overwhelming threats of the Axis powers in World War II and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The four graphic novels I mention above, however — From Hell, Watchmen, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns — all seem to be universal. To the lay reader — that is, the reader who has not seriously attempted to read a graphic novel — this may sound incredulous. But the truth is that these four titles deal with serious issues concerning the human condition that would engage anyone from any culture or time period. As a matter of fact, I just re-read these four graphic novels, and sure enough — the narratives still hold up, despite the fact they were all written during or shortly after the years of the Reagan administration. (See the Appendix for a list of other graphic novels that I judge to meet all four of these criteria.)

Cover to the 'Batman: The Dark Knight' graphic novel; artwork by Lynn Varney

Conclusion: Overcoming the Stereotype

I can say first-hand that it is a weird feeling reading a graphic novel as a serious work of literature. When you come from the mindset that all graphic novels have the same consistency of those trite early comic books, an encounter with a text like Watchmen will be simultaneously bewildering and enlightening. The uncanny feeling that arises from the clash of this bewilderment and enlightenment I think represents your mind’s grappling with the comic book stereotype: part of your mind still wants to view the text in the same light as a cheesy early Superman comic, but another part of your mind is determined to view the text in a more serious and mature light. Once you overcome this uncanny feeling — and thus overcome your stereotypical view of graphic novels — you will find yourself reveling in a medium that presents a combination of excitement and philosophical depth. Certainly, you should not read only graphic novels, but their addition to your reading repertoire will assuredly make your ongoing literary study — whether this study is conscious or not — happily richer and more comprehensive.

Appendix: High-Quality Graphic Novels

The following list contains titles of graphic novels that I have recently surveyed and judged to meet all of our four criteria for quantifiability as “serious” literature. (Note: I realize I’m leaving many major graphic novel titles off this list, including many titles that have received major critical acclaim [e.g., Alan Moore’s Batman novella, The Killing Joke, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books, and Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde], but I leave them off only because I have not had a chance to read and study them yet. When I have, you will hear about it.]

*300, by Frank Miller: (For a more in-depth discussion of this text, click here.) Underneath all the muscles and hype, this graphic novella (for it is not really “novel-length”) is an unflinching study of the steadfast human will. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans match up against an army that seems to be as large as the Mediterranean, but they don’t care and march tenaciously into battle, knowing fully that they will all die; but, as the narrative reveals, to die defending your home, your loved ones, and the ideals your people hold dear is one of the greatest honors a person can earn. Or is it? By its conclusion, 300 has posed many questions regarding military ethics and the concept of honor. Note: the film adaptation of the graphic novella is fine, but like the Watchmen adaptation, it lacks the depth of the original text.

*Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller: This 1987 reboot of the Batman franchise demonstrates what a good action story should like: sure, there’s plenty of fist-fights and thousands of dodged bullets, but there are also keen questions hovering like gargoyles above the narrative that cause the reader to ponder concepts like vengeance, vigilantism, and heroism. Is Batman a hero? Or is he a disturbed vigilante? Read the text, and you decide.

*The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller: Frank Miller’s other famous Batman work depicts a 55-year-old Batman coming out of retirement to return to cleaning up the streets of Gotham. Like Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns poses intriguing questions about violence and heroism, and ultimately whether or not fighting crime is even worth it, since it always exists — even in a universe protected by the likes of heroes like Batman and Superman.

*From Hell, by Alan Moore: Moore’s story about Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel murders presents us with a slew of intriguing conspiracy theories, metaphysical ponderings, and the overriding question of whether or not a culture itself is responsible for creating its monsters. Definitely not light reading, but ultimately an immensely rewarding reading experience that will leave you thinking long after you finish it. But beware: there are a plethora of scenes depicting grotesque violence and explicit sexual situations (though not without reason).

*Maus, by Art Spiegelman: Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Maus is at first an odd narrative for a graphic novel, because it doesn’t contain any superheroes; but then again, when you look past the comic book stereotype, this is hardly a problem. Spiegelman’s book tells the story of his parents’ struggles as Jews during the Holocaust, which makes it a biography of sorts. But the truly intriguing aspect of this narrative is that the characters are all illustrated as various types of animals: Jews, for instance, are portrayed as mice, while the Nazis are portrayed as predatory cats. This might sound as though it would be distracting and a bit disrespectful towards those who lost their lives during the atrocities, but once you begin reading the text, you see the reverse is true: a more engaging and respectful narrative device you will not find in any tale of the Holocaust — in fact, I’d argue that this text is as important an entry of Holocaust literature as Elie Wiesel’s Night.

*Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi: Satrapi’s Persepolis ranks up there with Spiegelman’s Maus as being a “new” type of graphic novel — that is, a “graphic biography” (or in this case, a “graphic autobiography”). Satrapi’s book, which comprises two volumes (one that details her childhood and another that details her early adulthood), tells of her life under the oppressive regime that has run Iran since the cultural revolution there in the early 1980s, and her later life choices as a result of the regime. Humorous and sad moments are spread equally throughout the story, but Satrapi never loses her focus or her sincerity in her beliefs. I find this book to be such an honest study of the human condition that I heartily believe that it should be required reading in high school English or Social Studies courses.

*V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore: One of Moore’s first graphic novels, this narrative depicts a theoretical 1997-1998 England (from the viewpoint of 1983, when Moore wrote the series) in which most of the world has been devastated by nuclear war and in which a fascist regime has taken control of England, promising safety but not freedom. This is a highly philosophical narrative that ponders the extremes of fascism and anarchy and the effects of these institutions on countries in general and, more specifically, the human mind. Warning: avoid the film adaptation of this film, which sidesteps any mention of either “fascism” or “anarchy” and instead gives us a time-piece about the woes of administrations like George W. Bush’s.

*Watchmen, by Alan Moore: This graphic novel has been praised more highly than any other graphic novel to date, and TIME even listed it as one of the 100 best novels of all time. Set in the 1985 of an alternate universe, America’s superheroes — long since forced into retirement by the U.S. government — are being murdered. A few of the heroes from the old days band together to unravel the problem, which involves (among other things) an imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Ethical discussions abound. The film adaptation is okay, but like the 300 adaptation, it lacks the depth of the graphic novel. Nevertheless, watch the introduction to the film to get a feel for this alternate universe. Notice particularly that one of the superheroes is eventually dragged off to a mental institution, while another is openly homosexual, while yet another is responsible for the Kennedy assassination. These elements cannot be processed without recognizing that Moore is saying something about our superheroes and — by extension — us, the culture that produces them.


4 thoughts on “Graphic Novels as Literature: Overcoming a Stereotype

  1. I have recently been converted from a literature snob to a graphic novel junkie. I’m a Creative Writing major at UCRiverside and took a graphic novel course last quarter (decision based on a misunderstanding) and fell so in love with the genre that I’m retaking it as a summer school course this month. I’m writing a paper on the validity of graphic novels in comparison to traditional novels and ran across your post. I plan on quoting you in my paper – thank you for a wonderful post.

    • I’m happy I could be of help! It’s about time that quality graphic novels get the attention they deserve — certainly, graphic novels like Watchmen and Maus trump the cliche-ridden drivel produced by hack genre novelists like Clive Cussler and Danielle Steele, not to mention the recent “shining stars” like Stephanie Meyers and Suzanne Collins. Again, I’m glad you’ve found my site useful!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I currently teach high school English, and I also read and refer to graphic novels (as well as comic books) in my classes, since many of my students are familiar with them and/or the films that have been based on them. I am also working on my Master’s degree and am considering a study of the graphic novel genre as part of the program. Nice to see there is a growing appreciation for this area among fellow educators.

  3. Mr. Kneeland,
    I have no idea if you remember but I was in your 8th grade Language Arts class at BSCS around 4 years ago. I was the kid obsessed with The Doors (still am).I was roaming stumble upon and it literally got me to your sight on happenstance, but I thought I should thank you for your awesome teaching skills. The mature reading list we had certainly prepared me for my AP english courses. Well just wanted to say this is probably my favorite post I’ve read on here, besides the Iliad translations which I might add are quite humorous. It’s pretty neat to see atleast a few of my english teachers appreciating graphic novels. Watchmen was my first foray into advanced graphic novels. If you haven’t read them I would consider: A killing joke (the joker’s own origin story), superman: red son(alternate version), and what ever happened to the man of tomorrow by alan moore.

    sincerely, Omar Gutierrez

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