Saturday, July 02, 2005

On the artistic merits of the comic book

Music: Miko Mission - How Old Are You?

I don't get the intellectual stigma regarding comic books. Visual art and literature are both fine, but when you put them together, it grows more difficult to view the combination as being capable of any artistic merit. I've never been a big comics person, having only read Archie comics as a kid, but I'm starting to wonder why it's so difficult to view comic books as a legitimate means of artistic expression.

Part of it is because of the bad reputation given to comics by the traditional super hero comics targeted at teenagers. The notion of being someone who avidly follows comics raises to mind images of pimpled teenagers living out their fantasies though the latest issue of Batman or of the comic snob character from The Simpsons. But dismissing the entirety of the comic book world due to the popular titles that make the biggest sales is as silly as dismissing the entirety of Hip Hop music because of the latest Ying Yang Twins track or fictional novels because of the number of horrible pulp fiction titles on the New York Times bestseller list. Like any other art form, comics are capable of brilliant insights, as well as the same old recycled cliches for which the genre is best known.

Another problem faced by comic books is the assumption that they are only capable of somewhat superficial plot lines and character development. This is largely because of the difference in how much narration can be conveyed through speech bubbles, as opposed to in an actual novel. But this limitation is absurd. The cinema has similar limitations and that has not stopped it from becoming a serious art form. If you read a film script, you'll find far less of the explication that you'd expect from a book. That's because much of the art of a film comes from how it is shot and the visual imagery that is able to convey. An Antonioni film isn't brilliant just because of the dialogue, but because of how it interacts with the mise-en-scène created by his shots, timing, etc. Comics are similar in that a lot of the expression relies on how scenes are drawn and how the story is expressed though the juxtaposition of those images. At the very least, no one who views film as a sophisticated art form can deny the same potential to comic books.

Academia's recent series of assaults on the distinction between high and low culture has done a lot to change the derogatory light in which comics are viewed. Now you can take classes that study them at Universities and liberal arts colleges. There are even longer graphic novels that take themselves a little more seriously than past productions (which is not to say that comics must take themselves seriously to be of worth... in fact, that's probably the biggest problem with stupidly pretentious high culture). However, there's still a lot of literary segregation going on. There's still a lingering perception that comics are incapable of becoming great literature and audiences remain rather limited. Such courses are often viewed as novelties of the absurdity of academic culture by people who stand on the outside of academia or by literary traditionalists. The avid followers of Lyotard and Barthes probably aren't the ones who need to be convinced of the worth of comic books; but rather, our larger intellectual and popular culture, who still view them as media intrinsically designed for youths.

I'm not an expert on comics, but any remaining suspicion that they're intrinsically incapable of higher levels of artistic expression is pretty indefensible.

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