Well. Here's the thesis. I pray it loads and you can all read it.
Comic Books as a Serious Artistic and Literary Media: Debunking the Popular Misconceptions and Negative Opinions Americans Have of Their Own Creation.
Comic books. Six by ten inch monthly periodicals that sell for a little over two dollars and feature stories told not only with words but also with pictures. One researcher believes "no other narrative art form could be more familiar, accessible, or such an integral part of our American culture than comics" (Klein 2). The comic book came into existence in 1933 as a means of collecting popular comic strips that ran in newspapers for purchase, but in less than a decade after their inception comic books were no longer just a means of collecting strips, but a way to feature original works published exclusively in a magazine format. The stories told in comic books were aimed at readers of different ages and interests. The types of stories told in comics ranged from western tales of cowboys and Indians, stories about superheroes with powers beyond mortal men, and dramas about crime and murder. The comic book medium challenged more traditional means of storytelling such as the novel. The idea of using pictures to tell a story seemed reminiscent of children's literature, and having pictures in an "adult" story save for some small illustrations was unheard of. During the first half of the twentieth century, comic books were seen as nothing more than childish, disposable reading material. By the 1940s comic books endured a massive public denouement that would curse them for the next two decades. Despite their immense popularity, comic books tend to be viewed in an undeserved negative light because some believe comics are child-oriented, because the picture/text format is unorthodox, and because early 1940s literature claimed that comic books caused juvenile delinquency.
Even though comic book stories are aimed at mature readers, the public opinion of comics is set on the "fact" that comic books are merely cheap, disposable kiddie-fare. Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz was once quoted as saying that "[He doesn't] think the profession will ever get the respect it really deserves. For some strange reason, [comic creators] are considered to be on the same level as burlesque" (qtd in Astor 1). Comic books are aimed at a mature audience and cover a vast array of genres besides "superheroes," including drama, mystery, comedy, romance, myth, and science fiction. While the superhero genre is the most popular, it is not the only one. Stories told in comic books can be about anyone or anything. There is no law written somewhere that all comic books must be about muscular men and women with super powers who fight crime in spandex. The main characters of comics can be young, old, male, female, rich, poor, anything.
Also, there is no law written that the comic book must be written for a young audience. The average comic book reader nowadays ranges in age from eighteen to twenty-five. Most of the stories told in comic books are done in a mature fashion. Characters swear, smoke, have sex, fight, bleed, and die; not to say that comic books are vulgar though, more vulgar entertainment can be found watching late night television. Even the superhero comic receives the mature treatment: the superhero often finds him or herself in a situation where the decision isn't always clear, where the line between right and wrong is often blurry and where the relationship the hero has with other heroes is less than perfect. No matter what the genre, comic books tell stories in a straightforward manner, not talking down to readers, and handling whatever subject in a mature "adult" fashion. The word "adult," however, has proven to be a problem. Weiner notes, "The term adult, when associated with the comic book industry, has often referred to pornographic materials. This definition no longer holds […] adult doesn't necessarily mean pornographic buy may refer to philosophical and emotional content aimed at adult and mature teens" (3). Misconceptions about the content in comic books are another problem the medium faces in its attempt to gain acceptance.
Now even though the primary buyer and reader of comic books is a young adult, comic books have trouble making their way into the local bookstore. Brown observes that since the 1970s, the principal outlet for comics has been the comic specialty store (16). These stores usually carry a wide variety of comic books and offer a vast backlog of older issues, as well as t-shirts, games and other items often purchased by comic book readers. Unfortunately, comic books shops are few and far between with only a handful in a major city and in most cases none in a smaller town. If a bookstore has a comic book section, it is usually near the magazine section or a part of it. In many stores there is no section for monthly comics, only a small space on the shelves for collections of a specific group of comic books, commonly called "Trade Paperbacks" or "Graphic Novels" (terms invented to help sneak comic books into bookstores and hide them with the more respectable novels). Comic books are looked down upon by the general public as children's entertainment when primarily they are not. Comics are a fine and varied form of entertainment that for a variety of reasons have trouble finding acceptance with other "approved" forms of reading.
Another reason comic books are looked down upon, aside from their content, is the way in which the comic book tells its story. The juxtaposition of words and images in comic books is a departure from the manner in which a novel is read, however, both forms can tell superb stories and comic books may have an advantage with its use of art. In his article Klein notes, "The comic-book format sets the stage for developing humor and imagination, social awareness and expanding [children's] knowledge of narrative art" (4). Despite this fact, in the world of storytelling the novel is still the standard means of publication. Throughout history, the written word has always been more important than the visual. Granted, illustrations often occur in older text but only as a means of amplifying the message of the text they are placed with, not to convey their own meaning.
Comic books are looked down upon because they differ from the norm of the novel. Comic books have pictures and words interacting together as one to tell a story. In a comic book, you cannot separate the image from the text and still get the whole story. Neither picture nor word can function on its own in comics, both are designed to operate in tandem. In the world of literature, this concept was unheard of until the early 1900s. Despite the efforts of such creators as Will Eisner, who wrote his comic "The Spirit" for a pulp loving adult audience (Rose 2), the idea of frequently using pictures and words to tell a story instead of just words was only used in children's books, and so the comic book was regarded as a child's medium.
Those who read comic books are frowned upon not only because of the association the comic has with children, but also because of the manner in which the comic book is read. To read a novel, a person reads in the same specified pattern at all times. In a comic book, however, the direction in which the story is read varies from page to page and from panel to panel. Upon first glance of a comic book page the word balloons and narration boxes and sound effects are all arranged in a jumble with the illustrations. It may seem like an illiterate mess to someone who has only known of the typical style of reading from books or newspapers. But on closer inspection, the words follow a pattern. The arrangement of the panels and word bubbles are designed so that the reader's eye can move from one to another in a smooth manner. Nericcio's article observes that, "Through this medium, combining both words and images, comic-book artists push the limits of conventional narrative practice and, in the process, provide new means of critical inquiry" (7). Because of their intense use of pictures, comic books were once thought to cause illiteracy. If anything they in fact promote literacy, forcing the reader to increase their mental acumen for processing information. Reading comic books can in fact help develop reading and interpretive skills through its unique form of presentation.
Not only does the word/picture format of comic books actually stimulate interpretive skills, it also stimulates artistic thinking. Instead of having an endless string of adjectives or several long paragraphs dedicated to the description of a person, place, or thing, the comic book uses visual illustrations. From the moment the reader's eye looks at the panel of a comic, they are bombarded with visual information. The setting of any particular moment is completely laid out in one panel of art, taking the place of the complex and droning sentences of description found in novels. Also, the type of art used in comic books is not a simple, infantile, illustration as many believe. The art in comic books are dynamic, stylized, and detailed. Art in comics go a step beyond typical visual illustration in reading, instead of showing one moment in time, it shows several moments in sequence. Comic book artists utilize the concept of sequential images to relay a tale, a task that garners much more respect than it is given. Even though they are both quality methods of storytelling that require hard work to produce and are art forms in and of themselves, comic books are still not given the same respect as novels that they deserve.
Despite the prejudice caused by differences between comic books and novels, comic books were not viewed as an actual threat until 1948 when the book Seduction of the Innocent was published. Baker notes that "by 1941, one study estimated that some 180 million [comic books] were sold each year, and that children aged 9 to 14 spent 75 percent of the their free time reading them" (1). Seduction of the Innocent claimed that the heavy reading of comic books was a direct cause of juvenile delinquency and as a result, the Comics Code Authority was established, cursing comic books to be nothing more than childish entertainment for over two decades.
Comic books came under heavy fire from the government when Dr. Fredric Wertham decided to tackle the issue of juvenile crime. In March of 1948 Dr. Wertham held a symposium where he proposed that comic books were a direct cause of juvenile delinquency in every child he had ever taken as a patient (Baker 2). Dr. Wertham then went on to write his controversial novel, Seduction of the Innocent, in which he recounted his dealings with children that had lead him to believe that comic books "were a major cause of juvenile delinquency, violent crime, social disaffection, and deviant sexuality" (Siano 1). At the time the United States was suffering from mass fear and paranoia as a result of the Second World War and the rising threat of communism. The number of youths committing crimes was growing and the nation could not admit that it was their own fault; comic books were the perfect scapegoat. In an article, Ronald Schmitt observes that "Wertham's entire campaign was the horror of a society forced to look at its own sins, and [wonder] if the disease in them would spread to their young. It was a classic case of psychological projection: […] the refusal to see within oneself, that which one so readily sees in another" (157). Despite its poor reasoning and illogical conclusions, Dr. Wertham's book gave the public what they wanted, a means to dodge the responsibility of the troubled generation they had created.
During the 1940s several academic studies were conducted on the effects of comic books in the classroom before Dr. Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent. Several children were often found in class reading comic books and so questions regarding the validity of comics as an educational tool were raised. Comics were much more appealing to kids than textbooks were and so several academic and psychiatric studies were done on comics and their effect on youth. Some of the earliest studies proved promising, but "by the mid-fifties, the successful efforts of Wertham and others to publicly discredit the comic book industry brought an end to the research and discussion of […] comic books as educational materials" (Dorrel, Curtis and Rampal 232). The rash conclusions of the time were eventually taken as fact, and so any attempts to use comics in the classroom ended.
Wertham's book eventually led to a series of Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency, in which the doctor was the chief expert witness. At these hearings, "Wertham accused Wonder Woman of promoting lesbianism […] and […] sniffed out the homosexual undertones in the relationship between […] Batman and Robin," but the main target of these hearings was William Gaines, owner of EC Comics (Siano 1). EC Comics was the most successful comic book company at the time, and specialized in mature comic themes with titles such as "Crime Does Not Pay," "True Murder Stories," and "Tales From the Crypt." These comics were very graphic in their depiction of violence, and dealt with horror and the occult. Gaines was very nervous during his testimony and had extreme difficulty defending his comics to the committee. It is true that EC comics' largest audience was children, but there was no controlling that. The only way the comics Gaines's produced could be described as "aimed at children" was simply because they were comic books. When faced up against the highly renowned Dr. Wertham, William Gaines, and subsequently EC Comics, did not have a chance.
Despite the bleak outlook, comic book companies saw a silver lining in the dark cloud of the hearings, a chance to put their greatest competition out of business. A set of guidelines was proposed as a means to prevent comic books from showcasing inappropriate material. This set of rules became the "Comics Code Authority." A comic book would have to go through inspection to see that it met with all regulations in order to receive a stamp of approval from the CCA. Only comic books marked as "Approved by the Comics Code Authority" would be distributed to realtors. The code served two purposes; firstly, it was "an act of 'self-regulation' designed to stave off actual government censorship" (Doherty 4). Secondly, the code was a means to put EC Comics out of business. The code banned such things as "vampirism, werewolves, and zombies" in stories. Comics could not have the words "horror" or "murder" in their titles. Violence, drug use, and sexual situations were all to be played down if used at all. Every rule was created so that none of EC Comics top sellers could receive a passing grade from the CCA. As a result, William Gaines stopped publication of all of his EC titles except for one, which he then started printing in magazine format to avoid having to go through the CCA, Mad Magazine. What started off as a misguided attempt to save children ended up forcing regulation on a form of expression just to keep making money.
Comic books had been given a lethal injection, the creation of the Comics Code Authority had forced comics to stay what most Americans perceived them as: cheap children's entertainment. Comic books had to follow the code, as it was necessary for distribution. For two decades comics remained in their self imposed jail, until the advent of self-distribution came along. In the 1970's comic book companies started to distribute their comics themselves, and subsequently, code approval was no longer needed. Most companies at the time dropped the code, and began publishing more mature themed stories again. Marvel and DC, the two largest companies at the time, each kept using the code as a means of retaining their clean image in the public's eye. However, for a special comics dealing with the rise in drug use at the time, both companies did not carry the CCA seal on the one issue they chose to talk about the subject in. By 1986 comic books had finally come of age. The publication of such series as "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns" heralded the arrival of mature themes in mainstream superhero comics. Now, half a century later, comic books deal with every sort of topic or genre with titles aimed at readers of all ages, and the Comics Code Authority has outgrown its usefulness, if it ever had any to begin with.
In summation, comic books are a quality literary and artistic means of expression. They are entertainment for all ages and all walks of people. Comics are capable of telling stories in their own personal and unique fashion that separates them from all other forms of literature and art. In recent years comic books have found the freedom to be about whatever their creators want them to be. Comic books are an original American creation that is to be treasured and embraced, not put down and prejudiced against.
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