Comic Books and Graphic Novels: The Undiscovered Medium

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A thesis exploring comic books and graphic novels as a literary medium.

Text of Comic Books and Graphic Novels: The Undiscovered Medium

Louis J. Prosperi BGS 399 Senior Thesis Final Draft August 13, 1998

COMIC BOOKS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS: THE UNDISCOVERED MEDIUM

BGS 399 Senior Thesis

First Draft

Louis J. Prosperi

09/12/10

Page 2

Introduction And ThesisThough commonly thought of as funny books meant only for children, comic books, and more specifically graphic novels, are in fact a legitimate narrative and literary medium capable of withstanding the same sort of scrutiny and criticism as other narrative forms, and are worthy of the same sort of praise afforded to other forms of literature, be they novels, short stories, plays or poetry. The idea that comic books, or graphic novels as they are sometimes referred to, are a form of literature is not a new one. In an article in Publishers Weekly, Martin Pedersen notes In 1990, Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for Maus, signaling to the publishing mainstream what aficionados of the graphic novel have long known; comics are a medium capable of exploring themes every bit as serious as those studied by an prose novel (n.d.). According to Beth Levine, Spiegelman feels that graphic novels arent just another genre, but a separate medium of artistic expression (45). In his book Comics and Sequential Art, comic book artist and writer Will Eisner points out that comic book artists have been developing the craft of interplay between words and images for over 50 years comic, and that in doing so have achieved a successful cross-breeding of image and prose (8). In the above mentioned Publishers Weekly article, Pedersen quotes Eisner: I think comics became literature in the late 60s in San Francisco, with the emergence of the underground comics. There, for the first time, cartoonists like Spiegelman and Crumb began using comics as social protest. And they used it in a manner which I regard as a basic function of literature. (n.d.) Despite these and other testaments to the legitimacy of the comic book medium, it has gone virtually unnoticed and undiscovered in America. In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, author Scott McCloud notes that at one time or another virtually all great media, including written work, music, video, theatre, visual art and film, have received critical examination in and of themselves, but for comics, with the exception of Eisners Comics and Sequential Art, this attention has been rare (6).

Purpose and Method The purpose of this paper is to examine the comic book medium as a legitimate narrative and literary form, one that is a unique result of the combination of its two primary elements, words and pictures, and to demonstrate that this medium is capable of sustaining the same sorts of literary analysis and criticism as other forms of literature.

BGS 399 Senior Thesis

First Draft

Louis J. Prosperi

09/12/10

Page 3

To examine the comic book medium for this purpose, I shall begin with defining the term comics and looking at comics as a form of reading. Following this is a discussion concerning the form and structure of comics, including the vocabulary of the medium, the specific manner in which the elements of that vocabulary interact, and the mental process of reading comics. This concludes with an examination of how narrative, in particular specific elements of narrative, are manifested in comics. Following this description and discussion of the comics medium, I will apply a variety of critical approaches to literature to a select number of comic works to demonstrate their ability to sustain the same sorts of scrutiny and examination as other forms of literature and art.

Comics As A Narrative And Literary MediumIf comics are in fact a narrative and literary medium as I suggest, they must be capable of being read, or experienced. Before exploring comics as a form of reading and the vocabulary of this medium, its first necessary to define some terms that will be used throughout this paper.

Defining ComicsThe first step in understanding comics as a narrative and literary medium is to establish a working definition for what is meant by the terms comic books and graphic novels, and comics. Peter Scott Prescott suggests that comic books are not simply illustrated books, but instead are books containing a narrative thats advanced by both words and pictures (71). According to Paul Levitz, then executive vice-president of DC Comics, a graphic novel is an original, self-contained story, told in the comic book format (Levine 45). Writing in Publishers Weekly, George Beahm states that Handled with skill, the graphic novel is an ideal format that brings together the best of two worlds the power of the word and the power of art (22). While the above definitions are accurate, they dont define the medium as much as they do physical books. What is needed is a definition of the medium of comic books. Scott McCloud suggests that the art form the medium known as comics is a vessel that can hold any number of ideas and images. The content of those images and ideas is, of course, up to creators, who all have varying tastes. The trick, according to McCloud, is to never mistake the message for the messenger, or medium (6).

BGS 399 Senior Thesis

First Draft

Louis J. Prosperi

09/12/10

Page 4

Eisner refers to this medium as sequential art, and describes it as an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea (5). Seeking a more formal definition, Scott McCloud defines the term comics to mean, juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer (9). For purposes of this paper, I will use terms comics and sequential art, as defined by McCloud and Eisner respectively, when referring to the medium, and the phrases comic books and graphic novels when referring to specific stories and books employing the medium of comics.

Comics As A Form Of ReadingComics, be they regular comic books or graphic novels, are meant to be read in much the same way that novels, poems and short stories are read. And though the idea of reading a comic book might not seem to be the same as reading a novel, given the presence of pictures, in some ways, it may be considered a more genuine form of reading than that normally associated with straight prose. Will Eisner, when discussing the idea of comics as a form of reading, insists that comics communicate in a language that relies on a visual experience common to both creator and audience. Modern readers can be expected to have an easy understanding of the image-word mix and the traditional deciphering of text. Comics can be called reading in a wider sense that that term is commonly applied (7). To support this claim, he states: Tom Wolf, writing in the Harvard Educational Review (August 1977) summarized it this way: For the last hundred years, the subject of reading has been connected quite directly to the subject of literacy learning to read has meant learning to read words But reading has gradually come under closer scrutiny. Recent research has shown that the reading of words is but a subset of a much more general human activity which includes symbol decoding, information integration and organization Indeed, reading in the most general sense can be thought of as a form of perceptual activity; but there are many others the readers of pictures, maps, circuit diagrams, musical notes (7-8).

The Vocabulary Of Comics

BGS 399 Senior Thesis

First Draft

Louis J. Prosperi

09/12/10

Page 5

Having defined comics as a form of reading, it then becomes important to discuss briefly the language of this medium, and its vocabulary. According to Scott McCloud, Words, pictures and other icons are the vocabulary of the language called comics (47). While we understand the use of the terms words and pictures, the last term, icons, requires some further discussion. Here McCloud uses the term icons to refer to the mass of symbols of differing types used in comics. According to McCloud, icons are images used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea. They can be symbols that represent concepts, ideas, and philosophies, as well as icons of the practical realm such as language, science and communication. Finally, there are the icons we call pictures, images designed to actually resemble their subjects (27). And just as there are different types of icons, so too are there differences in the level of meaning between these different types. Non-pictorial icons, such as letters and numbers have a meaning that is fixed and absolute. Their appearance doesnt affect their meaning because they represent invisible ideas. In the case of pictures, however, meaning is more variable and fluid based on appearance, and they differ from real-life appearance to varying degrees. Lastly, there are words, which are totally abstract icons that bear no resemblance at all to their subject (McCloud 28). Beyond the types of icons described above, comics also employ another type of icon, one that plays an important role in the mental process by which we read comics. This type of icon is called the panel or frame. The various shapes called panels or frames hold in their borders all the icons that add up to the vocabulary of comics, but are at the same time one of comics most important icons (McCloud 98). Panel shapes can vary considerably, and while differences of shape dont necessarily affect the specific meanings of those panels, they can affect the reading experience nonetheless (McCloud 99). As Will Eisner puts it In addition to its primary function as a frame in which to place objects and actions, the panel border itself can be used as part of the non-verbal language of sequential art (44).

The Interaction Of Wor