Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reading and Reading Comics: Study From the Canadian Council on Learning

A study released last week by the Canadian Council on Learning showed what many of us have known for a while, that people who read comics are likely to read more, period. As in read books with words and no pictures. At least half the people I've ever know who collected comics were also voracious readers of novels, short stories, or fact-based books. It really has to do with the type of person who gets into any kind of reading. Generally it's a solitary sort of person, an imaginative sort of person, probably a sensitive person. At least in many cases. Despite stereotypes, comic collectors are usually fairly intelligent, though some may be high functioning in certain ways, and not in others.

I went through kind of an odd phase around the time I was university age. I was into comic books, but I was also into what is called literature, that is I liked to read books by Faulkner, Hamsun, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce, Hemingway, Kafka, Gide...and felt as if somehow the two things had to be mutually exclusive. I was probably operating under an impression I had unconsciously absorbed from society, that I had to be one thing or the other. I would go a few months of being a lit-buff, then I would shift to being a comic fan, read only comics for months, then sort of "clean up", go into reading rehab, and go back to reading "real books" for a while. This went on for a couple years until one day it dawned on me that if I liked both things, that in some ways they must be reconciled. If one person can like two different things, they must have more in common than is commonly realized. And so I became a guy who could have a backpack with The Stranger and Justice League: A New Beginning riding side by side. As the years went by, I realized I was not the only one who had discovered a fascination with these two sides of reading, as more "serious" authors who were apparently also comic fans appeared on the scene, writers like Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, and Michael Chabon, and incredible superhero literature novels like Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible were published.

Are comic books "literature"? To me they have a ways to go before evolving into something like that, partly because of many main stream comic collectors who are not highly literate, who tend to think in terms of something being cool or sucking. It's been a while since I read a Times Literary Supplement, but I don't recall new novels being measured on a scale from "lame" to "bad-ass". Harold Bloom has probably never used the term "kick-ass". Generally the superhero books that have been considered "literature" among comic books are full of deliberately shocking situations, thin characters who are much less identifiably human than say Jughead Jones, and trite dialogue; that to me become more of an embarrassment than evidence when they are wielded as examples of how the medium has "matured". Then there are the non-superhero comics that appear which also seem to be labelled literature, but which are often moody or sentimental one-sided whine-fests, completely missing the depth, the subtlety, and self-awareness and beauty of genuine literature. Just because the characters don't have superpowers does not make them works of art. Most comics that come out that have a genuine feeling to them are overlooked because of not being cool. They don't have badass characters, or the right kind of macho posturing. Cool is the rule.

In some ways I wouldn't exactly want comics to be literature. I like that it's its own unique form that can create kinds of stories that are almost totally unprecedented in history, legends beyond the old legends. I often think the quality of comics, its value, is in the way that the imagination can be so freely transferred onto the page, and that this is one reason why they have become a permanent home of the superhero genre. The style of comic storytelling in itself is actually incredibly sophisticated, and has been for decades. It's easy to take sequential art for granted, but hey, even Da Vinci never came up with it, even if his designs would eventually help inspire the creation of Batman.

For more on the CCL study, read here.


LissBirds said...

"Just because the characters don't have superpowers does not make them works of art." Thank you! I've been waiting for someone to say that.

Nice post, BTW. I, too, often struggled with the comics-will-rot-my-brain stereotype. (They haven't really rotted my brain out completely, just my wallet.) But then I found out via his own blog that J.M. DeMatteis holds both Ray Bradbury and J.D. Salinger in high esteem, and that made me very happy.

Aaron said...

Thanks for the comment. I was recently reading about what writers Robert Kanigher, author of Lois Lane, Metal Men and various was influenced by, and it was an impressive list, he was very well read.