There was one comicbook from last week’s new releases that really surprised me, and it wasn’t a title that I had ordered in advance or even recalled was being released. Sure, there were some fairly good books, Superior Spider-Man #3 and All-New X-Men #7 come to mind as being baseline engaging, but the book I’m talking about hit on levels that most mainstream comic do not. It’s the type of book that takes the various elements of the comics’ medium, including its history, and pieces of culture and wraps them in a package that is engaging, inspiring and thrilling. The book is Dia de los Muertos Uno (or #1) from Image’s Shadowline imprint, and it’s the type of book that reminds me of the ongoing debate about comic books being literature.
Are comics able to reach the high art heights of literature? Can a pop song be regarded as highly as a piece by Mozart? I was dancing around this fundamental question about the merit of comics when I wrote about the Beat Generation’s populist literature movement and “slice of life” comics. The idea of comics as populist literature and comics as literature in general are intertwined. Do we demote comics as literature if we refer to them as part of a populist literature movement? Depends.
The populist literature movement is to remove the academy, those hearty exclusive intellectuals who strangle out all other perspectives to have a perceived pure art. It is also the idea that street language, the symbols and significance of popular culture and every social class, can be used to achieve a piece of high art. The debate is very strange, mainly because much of the denial surrounding comics as high art relies on stereotypes and prejudices. There have been comicbooks that have reached the height of academic acclaim and popular regard. And then there is Watchmen, the book that has both helped and hurt comics in the literature debate.
In 2008, Entertainment Weekly described Watchmen as “The greatest superhero story ever told and proof that comics are capable of smart, emotionally resonant narratives worthy of the label literature.” What’s right with this quote is obvious. What’s wrong with this quote is not as obvious.
Superheroes are not all of comics just as drama is not all of fiction. Superhero comics are quite cable of being engaging narratives that advance insight into the human condition. That recognition is a benefit of the high regard Watchmen has received. But what it has also done is reinforce that comics are the exploits of spandex clad men and women.
A comic reader knows that comics are just a medium that combines two aspects of our visual sense. Comics have just as many genres as fiction. Horror, crime, adventure, drama, romance, western, science-fiction, etc.
I would dare say that, for example, a book like Jeff Lemire’s Essex County deserves the type of acclaim Watchmen has earned within the general public as “worthy of the label literature.” Yet, where Watchmen garners a larger appeal in that it examines the dark dysfunction of superheroes, Essex County’s meditation on family, memory, grief, secrets, and reconciliation goes relatively unnoticed by wider audiences.
So too does a book like Dia de los Muertos. What drew me to the book as I looked through the new releases at my local comic shop was its size. Presented in golden age format and produced using a pulpy paper that is thicker than mainstream glossy superhero comics, it strikes a commanding pose. “Buy me,” it said as I browsed the new books on the rack. “Don’t you like my colors? My horror inspired theme? My meditation on old traditions?” Yes, yes I do.
The three stories the title presents are fascinating meditations on the “Day of the Dead,” offering us a woman slipping between this world and the next, the ghosts of ancestors righting a wrong and a man ruminating in the depression of lost love. Each is connected by the shared theme and a color scheme by artist Riley Rossmo that reminds me of the technique used by Viktor Kalvachev in his pulpy noir Blue Estate.
As I thought about the comics as literature debate, perpetuated by columns on other Websites, I kept coming back to Dia de los Muertos. Being a three story collection, it does not meet the seemingly manufactured marketing title “graphic novel” often applied to comics. Yet it does excel within the short story literature category, where writers like Raymond Carver took up residence. And more so, the art presentation is arguably the most striking component of the book.
That’s the thing about comics—they are part words and part art and you cannot separate the two.
Comics are a visual cornucopia that allows a reader to interpret a given scene or panel in a multitude of ways, and gives the creator(s) a multitude of ways to convey their story. Perhaps literary snobs are so compelled to dismiss comics because they sense the art component cheats the experience of reading? Yet they fail to comprehend the immersion aspect of comics, as the various elements incorporated into any given panel or page invites a reader to explore each individually and as a cohesive whole. Many more intelligent people than I have explored this reading process, and I dare not recite their insights beyond acknowledging their contributions to the debate.
For the last few years I’ve wrestled with this debate about comics being literature, searching for definitions, arguments and perspectives that acknowledge the fundamentals of comics as high art achievements. I’ve never been satisfied with comics place in popculture being the only acknowledgment of comics place in the human story. The merits of any given comicbook are like the merits of any given general book. The dime store romance novel would never be confused with Ulysses. Nor would Booster Gold be confused with Lester from Essex County, although both wear a mask. I fear I will continue to wrestle with this debate as long as Watchmen is the too often cited evidence of comics “worthy of the literature label.” Of course comics are worthy. And they are more than just superheroes. There are books like Essex County and Dia de los Muertos that are too often overlooked because they’re not the stereotype and don’t subscribe to the prejudices of those who think superheroes and comics are synonymous.
I’ve written too many reviews to count that analyze some of the various comics that incorporate the elements of literary works. Even superhero comics like, for example, Batman and its recent “Court of Owls” storyline, which utilized mirror symbolism to explore larger aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality and psyche. The evidence is there. But sadly, the acknowledgment is not.
I muster on. Read comics. Write about comics. Read about comics. I gather evidence of “smart, emotionally resonant narratives” that won’t confuse genre for medium. I regret nothing.