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Art + Lit = Comics

Alex Wingrave discusses the rise of comic books as a form of art and literature.

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While superhero films have been enjoying unprecedented success at the box office in the last decade, the source of characters like Iron Man, Batman and Spider-Man remains culturally underappreciated, particularly in Britain. The comic book, or graphic novel, is often viewed critically as empty fluff for children. However, it is an art form full of potential, and one which has yielded some of the most exciting creators and stories of the past century.

an art form full of potential

Comics are most easily defined as sequential art, often accompanied by words in the form of captions or speech balloons. The first modern comic book, Famous Funnies, was published in the US in 1933, and with the creation of Superman in 1938, the industry quickly took off. Millions of comic books circulated throughout the 1940s and beyond, and while superheroes were undeniably popular, other genres like crime, horror, and romance also saw great success. Marvel Comics as we know it today began in 1961, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Far from vapid pop culture, the heroes which Lee, Kirby and others created were flawed and richly characterised, and the worlds they lived in were dense with political allegory and social commentary.

the worlds they lived in were dense with political allegory and social commentary

The term ‘graphic novel’ entered the public eye in the 1980s with the publication of three seminal works. Art Spiegelman’s Maus detailed the harrowing story of Holocaust survivors, whilst The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are still celebrated today for their dark deconstruction of the superhero genre. From here, the art form exploded in popularity as a powerful method of story-telling. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples are just a few examples of the moving, progressive and diverse comic books of the 21st century that have shown how much potential sequential art has.

Comic books are arguably unmatched for their ability to tell expressive and multi-layered stories

Comic books are arguably unmatched for their ability to tell expressive and multi-layered stories, with the unique combination of art and literature allowing for various layers of meaning inside a single panel. Superhero books are certainly more critically valuable than they’re given credit for, so if you love the movies, I strongly encourage you to dive into the history of your favourite character. If not, I firmly believe there’s a comic book for everyone. Comics are a dynamic, innovative art form which challenge and entertain their readers. They are great literature and great art rolled into one superlative package – what’s not to love?

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