When I ask people about the first thing that comes to mind about comics, the first and most common thing that comes to mind is either Superman, Batman or Spiderman. Their first association of comics is with superheroes. This is a somewhat an inaccurate assumption because I believe that comics are much more than superhero fiction. Since the first official comic strip in newspapers, the comic’s medium has evolved beyond recognition. In fact, there are those, who like Scott McCloud, author of ‘Understanding Comics’, believe that comics was the first form of printed communication. If we look at the cave paintings left by our ancestors we get the feeling that they are trying to tell us a story with their drawings. Isn’t that what comics are?

Comics are a communication medium that comprises a number of elements common to other media, but which in their joining produce a medium that is unique. The syntax is composed of an interdependent framework of autonomous elements, linear in progression. In his book ‘How to Draw and sell Comics’ Alan Mckenzie also specifies that comics:
Generally read from left to right, down the page. It is possible to vary this for dramatic effect. In China and Japan for example, comics are read from right to left down the page, from the back of the book to the front. (Mckenzie, 1987, p.70)

Each frame (or panel) is a self-sufficient hole, a self-explaining visual entity, though the words contained in its captions and balloons probably read as ambiguous excerpts of a larger whole. The individual frames communicate a richer message through its inter-relation to the other frames that unite as a page. There is usually no essential visual continuity between a page and the next, just linking elements?. The general practice is at times varied both diachronically and synchronically due to prolific experimentation.

The continuity is normally built on the literary element used to bridge the necessary eye movement from bottom of page one to top of page two, easing the transaction though not self-sufficient in narration. An amount of facts is taken for granted, but the direction of the surmising is usually controlled by cues present in each visual. What happens in between panels is assumed and not directly explained, though assumptions are stimulated by cueing strategies. Only in rare cases when an action or conversation needs to be minutely detailed, or in the few creators whose style is based on stepped, still-frame cinematic technique do we get anything like the continuous frame progression of the motion picture film. Even then, only the essential steps are illustrated the zoom or pan being stepped rather than smooth.

This use of such steps can be used in different narrative styles. The comic artist may prefer to carefully prepare and build up the action, as Harold Gray or Chester Gould do, or to collide head-on with the happenings, an aggressive approach more associated with the comic book and the underground comics. To endow his images with atmosphere the cartoonist may choose the use of solid black masses, the ambiguous delineation of background, or to the contrary resort to visual objects violently etched into the foreground, the range is infinite. In this respect colour can play an important role by calling attention to important points in the narrative; it can also help link dialectically different frames in a sequence by carrying the same tonal value from one picture to another (Maurice Horn, 1977, p.62)

Are comics art or literature?

It was Simonides of Keo, one of the early poets of ancient Greece, who once coined the phrase;

“poema picture lquens, picture poema silens”
(Poetry is a verbal picture, painting is a silent poetry)

This sums up the argument that has been going on since ancient times on the relationship between pictures and words. Ancient writers and philosophers tried to find the link between “painting” and “poetry” (the generic classical term for image-making and word-assembling). The earliest people to try to figure it out came up with the concept that painting and poetry were basically different forms of the same thing.

In Douglas Wolk‘s book ‘Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean’ he covers the argument in more detail. He tells us that although pictures can mean words and words can mean pictures they can also be used to complement each other especially in the comic book format.

Douglas makes reference to Horace, the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, who also said in his Ars Poetica;

“Ut picture poesis”
(As is painting, so is poetry)

What these ancient sayings mean is that basically, both painting and poetry are a way of representing perception and everything can be explained with either a picture or an explanation, or even a combination of both.

However, poetry and paintings have their own limitations. Poetry, or prose, has a fixed meaning and it is limited by boundaries of vocabulary and language. On the other hand paintings, or images, have an infinite shade of variation and the disadvantage that any kind of perception that’s not visual, such as abstract subjects, are much harder to convey.

On the other hand, Douglas also tells us that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had a different opinion about the matter. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a German writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment era. His plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of German literature. In his 1766 essay ‘Laocoon’, he claimed that space was the domain of painting and time was the domain of poetry. Any particular panel of a comic book can encompass as much space as a person can see at once, although it usually trims most of that space off with its borders to focus on whatever’s important to the narrative. Time, on the other hand, is manipulated considerably in order to fit in a comic panel, which is generally understood to be an image of a single moment. Language, especially dialogue, that’s included in a panel of comics, gives it a temporal dimension. It can describe time or describe change over time easily in a way that pictures can’t.

If pictures and words are representing different elements of a similar theme what does the reader understand first, the words or the pictures?
On a first reading, it’s possible to take in a comics panel’s picture in just about the exactly the time it takes to read the associated words. The reader is ultimately in control of the speed at which the page progresses. He can linger over each panel; observe a tier or a page or a two-page spread as a composition and get a sense of the whole thing at once; look back at panels already read or turn the pages backwards at will. He can reorient himself in the story with a glance, because on each page there is the visual cue for where you are in the narrative. The reader does not have to read chucks of texts just to get a bearing. In fact, certain comics hide clues from the narrative in certain panels that leave the reader going back to certain pages for a better understanding of the whole narrative. This makes for a much more engaging experience when reading comics as a multiple of senses are required to enjoy the full potential of a comic book story.

Douglas later concludes that by combining the advantages of prose and art, comics deliver a multisensory experience and cancel each other’s disadvantage. The way they complement each other in a comic makes all the difference between a good comic and a bad one. The same poetry and the same painting can convey different experiences depending on the way they are combined and the way they are perceived by the reader. It is important to say then that the reader is in full control of the experience of reading a comic and we can safely assume that each person understands a comic narrative in his or her own way. Sometimes artists exploit this aspect of comics to create discussion about particular characters dealing with moral issues and see how their readers perceive such issues.

What is a Graphic Novel?

All this talk about the relationship of prose with pictures brings us to the topic of graphic novels. Graphic novels are basically a long comic book. As we have seen, comics are a medium for expressing information and/or artistic ideas by incorporating images used in a sequence in conjunction with words to create a narrative.

“Comics” is the name of the medium, like a film or painting. For example a film is a way to express an idea, any idea the director wishes to express. Comics are like that. It’s a container of ideas. Ok, so you might be asking, what is a graphic novel besides a comic book? Graphic means, expressed through images. Novel is used less precisely. A novel is a long narrative prose that describes fictional characters and events in the form of a sequential story. A Graphic novel is the combination of both genres. They are narratives that describe fictional characters and events but instead of in a prose form, they use images to complement the sequence of the story. Hardcover or soft cover graphic novels have enough pages to need a square spine. This is why they are more considered as books than comics, which is the term usually used to refer to the monthly periodical.
The term is also sometimes used to imply adult-level content, i.e. comics are kids’ stuff while graphic novels are for adults. However, most comics which are collected in a trade paperback or hardback format are also called graphic novels.

The popularity of graphic novels has grown considerably in the past years as more people became more familiar with works in this appealing and diverse format. A thriving market for graphic novels and rich cross-cultural influences mean that more experimental, innovative, high-quality stories and art are available now than ever before. Readers have a wide variety to choose from, so readership is no longer limited to fans of superhero escapades or slapstick humour. In addition, greater access to graphic novels such as graphic novel collections in public and school libraries (except Malta) certainly contributes to their current popularity.
From newspaper funny pages, magazines developed into a format devoted entirely to comics and superhero stories, and these magazines help usher in the idea of book-length collections of previously published comics. However, most comic’s historians agree that the first real graphic novel was Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, published in 1978. Decidedly adult in its images, themes, and language, Eisner’s book spoke to the generation that had first grown up with superhero comics in the 1940s and 1950s.

Underground comic artists like Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb inspired the early graphic novelists. Many later graphic novel writers and artists got their start at places like Marvel and DC Comics drawing and writing about superheroes like The Fantastic Four and X-Men, and then moved on to create their own works of art.

Very recently, Universities across America and Europe are starting to develop courses dedicated in the analysis of comics and graphic novels and how these formats help to shape our beliefs and values. Other courses are using comics and the graphic novel medium as a tool to explain or educate on subjects such as gender, race, medical conditions, social behaviour, politics, religion, ideologies and other topics of interest. Academics are shifting their view of teaching by incorporating comics into their syllabus as a means to make certain areas of study more interesting to students. It is only a fact that comics are becoming more popular with students and people of any age group. That is why more and more institutions and companies are using comics to expand their reach into new markets.

Serious Comics

With the evolution of the popular graphic novel format, comic book artists could write anything they wanted without the fear of deadlines or having to resort to commercial comics for success. More artistic styles could be developed and specific subjects tackled in the long comic book format. This gave the comic book reader a more diverse choice of materials. The comic book reader was introduced to a new breed of series comics. Although certain comics were already dealing with difficult subjects and creating their own niche markets it was the graphic novels that truly dominated the way the narrative could develop into serious literature.

In the world of comics, just as with novels or kids’ books, the feeling that some stories transcend the realm of “hey, it’s just entertainment” started to develop and became Serious Literature. I’m not saying that they did not include a few laughs, but you could tell there was something under the surface, whether through the subject matter or the language or the artwork.

These Serious comics have become so popular that comic awards started to pop up from around the world in order to give credit to a unique way of narrative. A style that incorporates in its narrative both visual and prose styles.

Nowadays there are a lot of them. In order to make a compelling argument for comics to be treated as literature, I shall be looking at some of the most important works of this medium. Comics that were written so well they are considered modern classics, some of which even won literary awards when comics were still considered childish. I shall also take a look at the writers and artists that wrote such comics in order to give us a social dimension on how to incorporate comics in an educational system. Some comics can easily be read to primary school students, whether to introduce a new language or introduce the medium. However, other narratives might need a little bit more explanation when it comes to reading them in an educational framework.

In his Masters in Communication Studies, George Mallia decided to see the effectiveness of comics as an educational tool. He argued that comics’ language can be an effective cognitive tool for educational purposes just as good as other text-based methods of instruction. Part of his research was a survey that compared a text about the history of pre-historic Malta with the same gist of the text but in illustration format and comic format. His results showed that comics had the same effects when it came to conveying information for a reader to understand. However, it was noticed that comics offer an advantage as “attention grabber”. Comics solicited the interest of students that usually are reluctant to participate in school exercises. Mallia’s exploratory study showed that the comics’ medium can be very useful in an educational system and also that it can work within the cognitive domain of the brain as an instructional tool.

In his Masters, he also made a point that more research should be conducted in this area of the comics’ medium. It has the potential to be an effective tool to deal with illiteracy in schools and thus more importance should be given to the subject and the medium in general. Making such research public would also showcase the positive effects comics have and thus attempt to eliminate the stigmatic reputation of the genre. He also suggests other areas of study in conjunction with comics especially in the advertising industry. The “wow” factor of comics was already noted in the sample of school children Mallia surveyed. The fact that illustrations, together with speech bubbles, could be manipulated to bring forth different reactions would be a very effective tool in the marketing industry.

Seeing all the potential for comics to teach and impress children whilst also appealing to adults readers I personally believe that a library with such materials should be set up. In fact, by exploring the benefits of reading comics and the positive effects they have on the individual, I will try to outline the need for a proper institution to guide and teach people about such format. I envision such an institution in the form of a library because , in a library one would find collected material for reference and also dedicated staff that are able to guide people to the graphic novels they need for their own particular needs. When we look at other countries we see that such libraries already exist or at least comics are collected in special section in national, public or even academic libraries. It is time for Malta to do the same. By bring awareness about such an issue I hope people will be willing to explore this idea further so that together with the comics community and the general public we can bring a new level of appreciation towards comics and graphic novels.

Klock, G. (2002). How to read superhero comics and why Bloomsbury Academic.
Mallia, G. (1994). Comics as illustrators: The use of comics in instruction. (M. A. Communication Studies, University of Malta).
Maurice, H. (1999). In Maurice H. (Ed.), The world encyclopedia of comics Chelsea House.
McCloud , S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art [ ] William Morrow Paperbacks.
Wolk, D. (2007). Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean Da Capo Press.

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