Comics, graphic novels underrated media

In the past two decades, there has been a surge in popularity in American colleges and universities to use comics as texts in the classroom. One has only to browse the textbooks available in the bookstore to see that Vassar is among these schools—titles such as Watchmen, Fun Home, Maus, Persepolis and Epileptic are a few of the many graphic novels and comics being read and discussed for their literary and cultural value. And while I’m ecstatic to see graphic novels and comics begin to be recognized as the academic resource they are, I also hope that these literary forms can be equally as appreciated in mainstream culture for the value as a source of entertainment.

Despite the success of such comic-adaptations as AMC’s The Walking Dead and the endless outpouring of superhero summer blockbusters, comics and graphic novels (and manga, for that matter) remains a fairly niche sector of the publishing industry. This limited cult following is a hindrance for both comic artists and writers as well as the art and book-loving community at large.

For those of you unfamiliar with the comic genre, I’ll provide a brief run-down of the different forms a comic can take. Comic is an umbrella term encompassing all images, frequently with text, that are relay narrative or information either alone or juxtaposed against other such images—basically, a picture or series of pictures that tell a story. Comic books are periodicals (think Superman or Archie comics); they are published stories told in comics, usually short in length and serialized.

Graphic novels, in contrast, are self-contained, longer-format stories told in comics, intended to be read as one complete text rather than a collection of different episodes. Many comic book series, such as Watchmen, are published together in collected editions and sold in a manner similar to graphic novels after several issues have been published separately.

Some people treat these larger collected editions the same as graphic novels, others refuse to distinguish between the two formats. However you choose to label these genres, an easy fallback is to call shorter periodicals “comic books” and larger, book-length comics “graphic novels.” Manga, Japanese comics, are serialized comics often sold in small, paperback book form, and are usually read from right to left in the Japanese tradition.

If you are completely new to the world of comics, I would suggest trying a little bit of everything, starting with graphic novels. I know many a die-hard literary fiction fanatic who, once having read their first graphic novel, became hooked. What can surprise many comic novices is the variety of genres that have been adapted into the graphic novel format. Just as with non-graphic books, comics are a platform for any story and genre that an author wishes to explore, be it mystery, coming-of-age or supernatural.

Fans of memoirs will be especially satisfied with the options at hand, since there has been an explosion of excellent graphic novel memoirs in the past few decades. There have also been a number of graphic novel adaptations of popular novels and classic works of literature produced recently, including Game of Thrones, Pride and Prejudice, The Odyssey and the works of William Shakespeare.

While manga and comic books often have a stigma attached to them as being aimed towards younger audiences or containing less mature, more simplistic themes and plots, there are a number of comic books (such as the original installments of Maus) which touch upon far more complicated subjects than superheroes and villains. However, I would also suggest actually taking the time to read a more “simplistic” comic book or manga at some point in your life.

Besides being fascinating snapshots of the influences pressing upon the popular culture from their respective time periods, comic books and manga can be both beautiful works of art to look at and extremely entertaining stories to read. Sometimes, it’s nice to read something that’s just plain fun. And, like graphic novels, comic books and manga cover a wide range of topics beyond superheroes (not that superhero comics can’t be excellent reads)—everything from romance to adventure to humor to historical fiction has been written in comic book form. And manga in particular is a comic format worth investigating if you have an interest in art; manga art is a style influenced by centuries of Japanese artistic development as well as modern and postmodern approaches to figure drawing.

If you do decide to pick up a comic and give the genre a spin (and I hope you do), you may find yourself overwhelmed with the thousands of titles and authors to choose from. While I cannot accurately recommend a comic based on anyone else’s preferences but my own, I can give some suggestions as to some good first comics to read.

For graphic novels, I recommend Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. It’s a text used by at least three different courses at Vassar and for a very good reason—it’s a masterfully written and drawn memoir that weaves themes of family, gender and sexuality, and literature into a seamless exploration of the author’s complicated relationship with her father and her own sexual orientation, mental health and relationship with art.

For comic books, I recommend either the collected editions of Watchmen by Alan Moore or the original 1960s issues of Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Watchmen (considered by some to be a graphic novel) is a cerebral, postmodern take on the superhero genre which features a unique and gripping cast of troubled “heroes,” and Spider-Man is a great starter comic book for those who appreciate character-driven drama and creative story arcs propelled by richly-drawn art.

Lastly, for manga, I recommend Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. Death Note, which chronicles the life of Light, a brilliant Japanese teenager who gains the ability to kill someone just by writing their name, is an attention-grabbing mystery thriller that’ll keep you on the edge of your proverbial seat.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a slightly slower-paced saga following the travels and obstacles of two orphaned brothers in an alternative pre-industrial Europe where magical alchemy reigns supreme, and is recommended for readers who appreciate elaborate world building. Whatever you choose, embrace these new media as one more way of contemplating the human condition.


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