The subject I have been asked to write about is Reading Novels vs. Reading Comics. This past Christmas we gave my mom, among other things, a very old copy of Dr. Spock’s famous Baby and Child Care book. My brother was thumbing through it, reading passages which elicited laughter because of the dated viewpoint. In one chapter Dr. Spock was sternly warning parents against the negative effects of children reading comic books. They were the gateway to juvenile delinquency. While that attitude seems quaint and misguided today, there is arguably a hold-over sentiment in many circles when it comes to judging the merits of the comic book medium. Listen to me kids, don’t listen to the snobs. The literati, those who drink tea with their pinky finger in the air and insist on Grey Poupon*, do not know what they are talking about. Comic books are da bomb!
Any person can walk into their local comic shop or book chain and pick up a comic that is garbage, a funny book that is the epitome of all the negative things said about comics since the day the first one was printed. But you and I know that the same can be said about novels. For every gem there are hundreds of plain, ordinary rocks. “Okay, so maybe you are right Carl and there are comics that are worth reading, but why should I read comics when I have a towering pile of novels to read?” Just as well to ask why read at all…because in comics, like in novels, there are stories that can have a profound effect on you. They may cause you to look at an issue in a way you never have before (Maus). They might ignite a passion for classic folklore and mythology (Sandman). They may inspire you to track down copies of classic literature that you had always meant to read but never got around to (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). They might teach you about the ups and downs of true love (True Story Swear to God). Comics have the potential of doing all the things that a novel can do, only in a slightly different way.
They use pictures.
The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” may seem trite, but its truth is born out in the very best that the world of comics has to offer. We are a visual species. Images sell us products, inspire us to action, shape our outlook, and teach us different ways to look at ourselves and the world in which we live. Advertisers have tapped into the power of images for decades. Comic books tap into that same vein, using the one-two punch of visual imagery and the written world to tell you a story. Comics are not just limited to the realm of the spandex superhero, although there have been many stellar stories told in the superhero realm in the past. Series like Fables dig deep into the folklore of nations while putting a modern spin on familiar faces. Shaun Tan’s The Arrival wordlessly tells a profound story of what it is like to be an immigrant in another country. Joe Hill’s Locke and Key gives his old man a run for his money in the horror genre. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series not only tells great stories but also shows how the individual comic panel can be used to add atmosphere to the story and lead your eye across the page. The recently completed mini-series I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly, deals with serious, heart-tugging subject matter in a story with a kick-ass young protagonist. In each of these and many more examples, skilled storytelling is combined with eye-catching art to tell a rich, fulfilling story.
I have had comics bring me to tears (Mom’s Cancer), keep me rooted to my seat in page-turning fashion (Watchmen), take me on long, soul-satisfying journeys (Bone), help me better understand the nature of creativity (Kabuki: The Alchemy). Every pleasurable, worthwhile experience that I have had reading novels has been duplicated over the last decade and a half reading comics. And in reading them I have developed wider tastes in art, discovered films and books and other comics that have enriched my reading life, and have had the unique pleasure that only the perfect marriage of art and prose can bring. You are truly cheating yourself out of a rewarding experience if you are not open to reading comics. Reading comics and reading novels, as part of a balanced diet, are what makes for a healthy, happy reading life.
*no offense to pinky lifters and poupon eaters who are not literary snobs.
Carl Vincent: He is a man of taste, a man with high aesthetics and a man of many books [the ones he have read anyway]. I am not good at these introductions [should not forget to ask for bios], so just go to Stainless Steel Droppings and be amazed with style.