Comic Books as Literature

I began reading comic books around 1983.  The first comic book that I read was Uncanny X-Men #169.  Since that time, I have easily read hundreds, if not thousands of comic books.

I have read comic books with stories about super heroes, mutants, vigilantes, and millionaire industrialists.

Some of those stories were about people who gained miraculous powers from accidents and some were about people who had their powers from birth.

Some of those stories were about selfish people who used those abilities to serve themselves and some were about people who used their gifts to either help or better humankind.

Superman, for example, was an alien sent to Earth by his parents when their planet was on the verge of destruction. His motivations have always been pure.  He does what he does because he is a good person and wants to help.




Spider-Man, as another example, initially used his powers to get rich and famous until his actions, or in his case his lack of action, caused the death of a loved one.  After this, his motivations changed.

The point is that comic books are full of assorted characters that all tend to have different motivations.  They either have good intentions or bad intentions.

I was not what you’d call a prolific reader when I was growing up.  I did not have the attention span to read “regular” books.  Comic books were more accessible for my particular reading style.  The stories in those books sparked my imagination  and gave me the means to escape real life by putting me in a different world.  As I got older and my reading ability become more (for lack of a better term) advanced, I still continued to read comic books.

The world of comic books is a subject that I have such a great interest in that I have studied outside of the comic books themselves to learn more about these characters and their environments.  To learn more about the various individuals, I went to external sources such as encyclopedias specifically written about them and multiple websites that were devoted to whatever character or characters I was wanting to learn about at the time.  I have discussed comic books with various online discussion groups and friends with similar tastes.  I also spent much of my youth, and a great deal of time since growing up, watching various animated and live-action films related to comic book characters.  Films such as Superman: The Motion Picture (1978), Batman (1989), X-Men (2000) and the Avengers (2012) brought to life characters I had read about in the comic books.  Other comic book-based films such as Howard the Duck (1986), The Crow (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Blade (1998),  and Hellboy (2004), Jonah Hex (2010) introduced me to characters I was not as familiar with.

For me, comics are more about just entertainment and having some sort of reading material available to me.  Comic books are embedded in me and are, essentially, a large part of my life.

As I have matured (err, sort of) I have come to realize that comic books are about more than just being “funny” books about unrealistic people and events.  Often times and throughout the history of comic books, the writers have touched based on various social, political and psychological topics.

For instance, in the 1960s, Neil Adams and Dennis O’Neill, in their Green Arrow/Green Lantern books, tackled issues such as pollution, racism, corruption and substance abuse.  Stan Lee, who has created some of the most iconic heroes of all time, conceived of his superhero team the X-Men, as a way to expose and speak out against bigotry.

The books that I grew up with were not only a source of entertainment, but they were also a source of inspiration.  These books talked paralleled real-life people who had real-life problems and were dealing with real-life situations.  Although these books are a work of fiction, they dealt with many of the types of difficulties that all of humanity has had to deal with.

A character that is one of my favorites is the character that is the epitome of what a super hero is.  This character is, to a lot of people, the character that they think of when they hear the word superhero.  That man is Superman.  Superman is the type of hero that, as you read more about him and read more of his books, makes you want to be a better person.  He is the most moral superhero, choosing not to use his powers to gain power over humanity, but to help humanity.  He embodies goodness.  He personifies the ideals of what is best about humanity.  He is so upright that he is often referred to by another iconic comic book hero as the Boy Scout.

Some of the best stories about Superman have been stories where he has shown that he is a hero for all people and those where he has risked everything to keep people safe from harm.  For instance, in the 1993 Death of Superman storyline that was written by several writers such as Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway, Superman paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect the citizens of Metropolis by engaging in battle with an unknown menace called Doomsday.  After having laid to waste parts of the country, Doomsday arrived in Metropolis only to meet Superman waiting for him.  After a hard but never one-sided battle, both Superman and Doomsday collapse.  Superman, with his last breath, ensures that the people of Metropolis were safe.

Comic books and their subject matter are not unlike the ancient stories of mythology.  Well-known characters such as Aquaman and The Flash are reminiscent of figures in Greek mythology such as Poseidon and Hermes.  Other notable heroes like Thor and his father Odin, and brother Loki, come directly out of old stories from Norse mythology.

Superheroes and stories about these characters are also similar to mythology in that they told stories that defined a culture and gave voice to a culture’s morals and values.  They provided stories with characters that presented lessons on how an individual should behave in society and attempted to provide explanations for things that those cultures did not understand.  They provided insight into the universe as well as the world around them.

Comics books and the stories that they tell serve comparable functions as mythology and other forms of folklore, especially as described by anthropologist William Bascom.  He pointed out that folklore served purposes such as providing an escape, validating the culture, and teaching the culture.  Much like mythology, comic books can definitely be used to provide a means for a person to escape the everyday routine of their lives.  But they are much more than that.  They can, also like mythology, teach society about acceptable and unacceptable forms of behavior.

Comic books used to be part of a small subculture of people, but lately have become more mainstream.  Many motion pictures and television shows use comic books and its characters as its source material.  In fact, many of the highest grossing pictures in the past few years have been films related to comic books.  The highest grossing film of 2016, for instance, was Captain America: Civil War.  In fact, there were three movies besides that one that topped the lists of highest grossing films.  2014 was similar.  Four out of the top ten highest grossing films of that year were based on comic book characters. 2017 is well on its way to repeating that pattern as, again, 4 of the top 10 highest grossing movies are based on characters from these beloved books.

The idea that comics are a form of literature is not nearly as absurd as one might have thought in the past. For instance, the graphic novel Maus, written in 1991 by Art Spiegelman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.  There are even several centers of higher learning that include courses related to comic books in their academics.  The University of North Texas, as an example, has a course titled Mythic Renditions of Superheroes, which discusses the political and cultural effects of comic books and graphic novels.

At the University of Utah, comic books are used to help foreign students learn the English language.  In several undergraduate business courses at Texas Tech’s College of Business, comic books and graphic novels are used to better grasp many of the concepts the professors are attempting to teach.

At California State University at Northridge, there is an English course taught simply called Comic Books as Literature that explores the visual medium in order to better understand its history and impact on society.

Comics are evolving into a more reputable medium not only for entertainment, but also as a means to better explain the nature of humanity.  Comic books are not unlike other forms of art such as music or painting in that they are there to enjoy but they are also there to reflect on and use to consider us, the people.  Comic books and the heroes described within them can be used as a source of self-evaluation and even self-realization.  They allow us to ponder on the situations described within them to broaden our own viewpoints and determine what type of people we ultimately want to strive to be.


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