The other day, myself and my mates were having a discussion about our favorite books. Perhaps not the kind of activity that your average group of sixteen-year-olds would be enjoying to but we’re happy to be weird.
Bearing in my mind that I’m a massive superhero fan and one of my friends is an expert and enthusiast for manga, the conversation invariably shifted to why our unconverted friends should pick up an illustrated tome or two. Here are some completely biased reasons for why comics deserve a place on your bookshelf!
Comics Are Big At The Moment
Even those of you who laugh at the idea of illustrated adventures must realize that comics are ‘in vogue’ at the time being. From big brand names like Marvel and DC to independent graphic novels and adaptations of famous books, comics are everywhere!
If for no other reason, it might be worth checking out various comics so that you can keep up with the barrage of new movies, television programs, and books based on comic books!
Comics Can Be Incredibly Successful
There are comics of great merit, however, that act as more than just fodder for Hollywood to adapt. Watchmen (1987), possibly the greatest graphic novel ever written, managed not only to juggle incredible imagery with a brilliant plot but also garnered itself a place on Time’s list of All-Time 100 Novels.
Furthermore, Maus (1991) won the Pulitzer prize for excellence in literature. That particular comic is a highly stylized retelling of a Jew’s experiences during the Holocaust. Its imagery and the advantages afforded to it by its medium allow it to become more profound and more affecting than most retellings of that frightful hour in our history. Which brings us quite nicely into…
It’s A Whole New Dimension
Now, I’m not knocking books here. I stand by the belief that prose is the best form of storytelling, allowing a depth and poignancy (if crafted well) that no other medium is likely to ever replicate. That doesn’t mean the other mediums can’t try, though.
The way I see it, comics are the halfway point between cinema and prose. They allow a clever creative team to merge and mix strong physical imagery with wonderful wordplay and arresting dialogue to create stories that almost leap off the page.
The use of color and composition to frame a scene allows the reader to step past any unnecessary description or exposition and focus purely on the story. This same luxury is afforded to the writer, who with less work to perform is free to enrich the characters and plot with more details and flourishes than usual.
But when are comics at their best? Not when they’re trying to replace books, that’s for sure. I think a comic is working to its maximum potential when you can’t imagine the same thing being done in a book.
Take Doctor Strange, the original comics illustrated by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, in particular, the attached image. Thanks to the work of legends like Stan Lee, that comic already has a strong backbone in its story and characters but it needs something else to really convince you the good doctor is a Master of the Mystic Arts and a wanderer of dimensions.
Thankfully, psychedelic art like the piece above manages that, helping to set the scene and enhance the story much more than words can. If you could possibly frame something as extraordinarily ‘other’ as this in prose, please tell me then get yourself a publishing contract. For me, it seems a task to never be completed and proof that comics can add a whole new dimension to a story, making for more cinematic, more mind-blowing storytelling than a large number of writers can hope to conjure.
It’s More Than Just The Creator
Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong but has anybody actually written a brilliant sequel to a novel by someone else? Eoin Colfer tried with ‘And Another Thing’ but he didn’t quite capture the same bizarreness that Douglas Adams lived and breathed. Geraldine McCaughrean tried with ‘Peter Pan in Scarlet’ but you never hear anything about that anymore.
And let’s not even talk about the five million and one Sherlock Holmes rewrites, sequels, prequels, reinventions and just plain down forgeries that have popped up over the years. It seems to me that in the case of prose, there are very few good continuations of classic series.
Well, the entire comics industry is set against that very idea. Batman, possibly one of the most easily identifiable comic book creations ever, comes from the mind of Bob Kane and Bill Finger but the version that we know nowadays was arguably more influenced by Frank Miller in ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ than anyone else, with the dark brooding nature and gritty realism a stylistic cliche from that era that has gone on to shape the character.
The X-Men, for another example, were invented by Stan Lee and Kirby in 1963, but you may be surprised that easily recognisable characters like Rogue, Jean Grey’s Phoenix persona, Mystique and Kitty Pride wouldn’t come into the canon until the work of Chris Claremont, who also took Wolverine from a side character and towards the popularity we see today.
The comic book industry allows for ideas to be shared and developed by various creative teams over the years, which means that ideas can evolve with the times, grow and become more relevant, more important and more wonderful than it was ever possible to dream of before.
I’ll give you one last example, just because I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t. Ms Marvel was a character created in 1977 by Gerry and Carla Conway with the artist John Buscema. She was designed to be the female counterpart of a pre-existing character, Captain Marvel.
Current writers have developed the character since into someone powerful enough to replace Captain America (see Marvel’s Civil War 2 comic series) and, on the other end of the spectrum, possibly one of the best comics currently in production that not only tells relatable, enjoyable and downright brilliant stories but helps to educate a whole new generation on the need to be culturally aware and respectful of each other (see Marvel’s current Ms Marvel series).
The point is, Gerry and Carla probably couldn’t have ever imagined that one day their idea would be turned into a figurehead of diversity and empowerment to young people but, because of the way comics are produced and sold, that was allowed to happen, and it’s wonderful.
They Are Pop Culture
Okay, well maybe not in its entirety, but still. Every time you hear someone say that something is their Kryptonite, that’s because of the influence of comics. Every time you hear the phrase ‘man cave’, that’s a reference to comics. They’re a reflection of our history, our culture, our deepest hopes and desires, fears and weaknesses.
When the world was scared of Hitler, Captain America was born. When globalization was becoming a greater possibility, the all white, all American X-Men were joined by characters of different ethnicities and faiths. Because comics are published so often and so regularly, they’re able to take a snapshot of the feeling of the culture that week.
Flicking through the wealth of Spiderman comics, for example, I can see the optimistic science and fashion of the sixties evolving as the character grows and ages, away into the pessimism of Cold War seventies and eighties, into the negative dystopia of the nineties and then on, with Miles Morales, into the diversity of the early millennia.
Comics reflect the way that our world is feeling and being shaped in a way that is every bit as relevant as conventional fiction.
They’re Inspired By and Extensions of Literature
I once read a book named ‘Carnacki, the Ghost Finder’. It wasn’t the best book I ever read but I enjoyed it and I think it was the first run in with gothic fiction, and certainly gothic horror, that I ever had.
I found it as a result of having read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which features the eponymous character, and wondering who he was. For the uninitiated, the League is a series of comics about a team of Avengers composed purely of fictional and literary characters.
It imbues these characters with plots and characteristics that make them more relatable than their creators ever did and, whilst I’m sure the very concept of a universe where all of the fiction interlocks was never conceivable to any of the writers that came before Alan Moore, it makes sense to the original canon.
Take the Dark Tower prequel comics by Marvel. They take the books that Stephen King so lovingly crafted and enhance them, added new layers of reality, backstory and character progression to an already packed series, due to the addition of their new dimension of storytelling.
Taking a step back from straight up adaptations, let’s look at the influences. One of the entries in Batman’s voluminous Rogues Gallery is the Mad Hatter, a villain directly inspired by the Alice in Wonderland side character. Over at Marvel, one of their bad guys is Dracula himself. Not an amalgamation of Dracula under a new name or a clever reinvention, but the actual character has taken straight from the novels.
Just like all other forms of storytelling, comics borrow heavily and are regularly influence by literature, often enhancing the original ideas or at least adding to them. In hundreds of cases, comics have revitalized literature and brought them back into the public consciousness, and if that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.
So there we are. Comics, often influenced by literature, have evolved due to strong, cinematic storytelling and countless innovative creative teams into a key piece of our pop culture. They showcase endless creativity and reinvention and I believe that wins them a place on your bookshelf!
Do you agree or disagree? What are your favorite comics? Let us know in the comments – we would love to know!