Are Comics Crap?

In the first class Dr. Beaty stated that the majority of comics were ‘crap’. This immediately intrigued me as I always understood comic books to be a heavily under rated form of literature. While I heartily agree there is a vast sea of ‘crap’ comics, I feel to dismiss all comics as such is misguided.

This post focusses on Watchmen, a comic that by any standard is not easily described as ‘crap’. Watchmen is written by Alan Moore, who places high emphasis on the quality of his characters dialogue. Alan Moore demonstrates that comics can offer profound understandings of life, not just mindless entertainment. David Itzkoff of New York Times wrote,

“If we imbue our champions with the weaknesses of ordinary mortals, Moore asks, and confine them to a cosmos where good and evil are subjective notions and right never triumphs over wrong, what’s the point of having heroes at all?”

The philosophical praise of Watchmen does not end here. Multiple outlets have appreciated the philosophical complexity of Watchmen. In 1987 it won a Hugo award, a prize offered only to the most sublime science fiction works. Time magazine went so far as to place it in its list of ‘All-Time 100 Novels’ …Putting Alan Moore with the ranks of Hemingway, Orwell and Atwood.

It is my declaration that watchmen’s philosophical elements are on a level comparable with classic literature. A preferred passage of mine that examines life in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace reads,

“‘Why not wash? That’s not clean,’ said Prince Andrei. ‘On the contrary, one has to try to make one’s life as pleasant as possible. I’m alive, and it’s not my fault that I am, and so it behoves me to make the best of it, not interfering with anybody else until death carries me off.”

The passage comes from a conversation between two of the books principle characters Pierre and Prince Andrei. Similarly in Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Juspecyzk have a conversation discussing the phenomenon of life as to which Dr. Manhattan concludes,

“Thermo-Dynamic Miracles …Events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.”

“And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter.”

“…Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization it was you, only you that emerged.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability like turning air to gold… that is the uncrowning unlikelihood.”

“The Thermo-Dynamic Miracle.”

In both examples the potency of the conversation is strengthened by their respective contexts but the point I’m making is clear. Alan Moore tackles the same philosophical questions Tolstoy does, but does so in a medium that is commonly disregarded as ‘crap’.

I am not alone in this argument either; many academic circles have come to discuss graphic novels such as Watchmen in a literary context. As I have exceeded the word limit I am prevented in fleshing out my argument. I could continue on with other examples of Alan Moore’s work, such as V for Vendetta and how it perfects Orwell’s 1984. Or even how Neil Gaiman’s Sandman dubbed “a comic strips for intellectuals” by Norman Mailer, literally recreates Shakespeare in the award winning A Midnight Summer’s Dream (a required reading). And ultimately demonstrate that Maus addresses the holocaust in such a profound manner it garnered a Pulitzer Prize. So are comics ‘crap’? Just like films, books and music – yes lots of them are. But are enough comics ‘crap’ them to paint them all with the same brush? Watchmen would disagree… and probably so would Tolstoy.

Devon Kiddell

Further Reading

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen, DC comics

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/20/books/review/20itzkoff.html

http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/1998-hugo-awards-2/

http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 1, (England: Penguin Books, 1969) 451

http://www.amazon.ca/Watchmen-Literature-Critical-Study-Graphic/dp/0786444754

http://www.pulitzer.org/awards/1992

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20207349,00.html

http://articles.cnn.com/2001-07-29/business/neil.gaiman.focus_1_neil-gaiman-cult-coraline/3?_s=PM:CAREER

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8 Responses to Are Comics Crap?

  1. jaygervais says:

    I have to agree that comics are an “underrated form of literature.” There are of course, like any other mass-produced form a media, endless supplies of comics that may be considered crap, but to overlook the entire medium altogether seems a bit unreasonable. Comics are rich source of information, including philosophical ideas and beliefs on morality, which you pointed out on your post, but most importantly, comics provide information about the societies that produce them.

    The comic “Drunk, Fucker!” by Gilbert Hernandez takes place in a bar where the narrator is pushed unwillingly to continue drinking, despite wanting to leave. As his intoxication increases, the narrator begins to question life and its meaning. The bar-mate comes to the conclusion that, “death is our only true purpose,” and decides that drinking is the only true answer. This depressing conclusion, although lacking any positive outlooks, captures the existentialism that pervades society. The crisis felt by the narrator occurs as a result of being molded into societies ideals and its repeating, endless cycles, which he seems to have no control of. Neither does he have the ability to turn down the drinks being offered to him, demonstrating his weaknesses with societies influence.

    Many comics cause us to question society and the world around us by pointing out, although often exaggerated, normal aspects of everyday life. Comics also criticize society and politics through satire, such as the web-comic “Hipster Hitler,” which features ridiculous portrayals of Hitler.

    The events that take place within this comic demonstrate the ridiculous nature of Hitler’s ideals, while at the same time turning the horror of his image into something that can be laughed at. This piece devalues Hitler as someone serious, and ultimately, turns his character into a joke. This is only one example of political satire, and even though it is incredibly stupid, it contains elements that reveal societies ideals and their evolution throughout history.

  2. alexmckay says:

    Jokes, jokes. Now, to be fair, I’m a Moore fan.

    I think part of what makes his work so interesting is that there’s a disconnect in its presentation — serious subject matter expressed through perhaps not-so-serious means (superheroes and comics — an art form that most people connect with Sunday funnies).

    I think that, maybe, by choosing to express his ideas through comics, Moore knowingly opened himself up to being painted by the same “crap” brush as the Sunday funnies and Archie comics (the irony of the graph above is that Moore reportedly hated the phrase ‘graphic novel’ for being elitist marketing nonsense).

    When writing a novel, there are so many “greats” to be compared to – the medium is pretty much awash with them. When writing a comic, you’re working with a medium that is held by many (especially, again, to those who see comics as nothing more than Sunday funnies) to a much lower standard.

    So, I wonder, would his story have made as much of an impact if he was working in the medium of the novel rather than the comic?

    Maybe being painted by the same brush works to his advantage.

  3. alexmckay says:

    darn, it deleted my graph!

  4. alexmckay says:

    i’m having no luck with graphs, so a plain old url: http://imgur.com/iyveD68

  5. jaygervais says:

    First Reply,
    by Jay Gervais
    (I could not edit a response).

  6. jamesohoulihan says:

    Jay Gervais your response was really well written. Your example of how “Drunk Fucker” discusses the meaning of life further demonstrates that comics are at least capable of philosophical quandary.
    Your interpretation of Hipster Hitler I also quite enjoyed and think that it is quite likely the reason for its popularity isnt just the humour but also its subtext.

    Devon Kiddell

  7. jamesohoulihan says:

    Alex McKay, the question you proposed was wonderful. “would his story have made as much of an impact if he was working in the medium of the novel rather than the comic?”
    This has caused a disturbance in my thinking. I think Watchmen likely would not have done nearly as well if it had been novel. Though this is also to say that I believe Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea would not have succeeded had they been a comic. Ultimately I think yes, Watchmen stands out because it has a higher standard of writing than perhaps the medium is used too. But also that it succeeded because it did things that only a graphic novel could have accomplished such as #5 fearful symmetry. Had Tolstoy been done as a graphic novel it is probable that it would not have succeeded as Tolstoy was only a literary genius not a spatial one.

    Devon Kiddell

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