As a teenager I once attended a voluntary lecture given by one of my English teachers that asked one question: ‘are comic books literature?’ I went in expecting Mr Novell (who often sold comics for charity) to justify my fledgling hobby by confirming once and for all the literary validity of the volumes I sought to collect. I was disappointed when he concluded that comics are not, in fact, literature. He argued that most consumers of graphic novels are more likely to appreciate a volume for its illustrations rather than its writing: since comic books emphasise pictures over words, they can’t be literature.
Ask a comic book reader to provide examples of literature within the medium, and they will probably come up with titles like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It’s easy to see why: Spiegelman’s harrowing depiction of the Holocaust won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and Moore’s subversion of the superhero genre was included in Time’s list of All-Time 100 Novels in 2005.
These examples occupy intriguing spaces in their genres, especially regarding the question of the dual composition of the comic book. Since Spiegelman himself put both Maus’ words and images on paper, are those competing elements given equal emphasis? Additionally, Watchmen helped establish Moore as one of the few comic writers whose fame outstrips that of the artists who have worked alongside him, having produced other renowned works such as V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Both these writers are fine examples of comic book cosmology: Moore and Spiegelman defined the stories which the associated images were consequently created to serve. This is creative cosmology, or cause and effect. Without their narrative construction, the images would have nothing to depict. It is not only the words in the speech bubbles that give graphic novels literary qualities; the movement of a story from its source to the page gives the flow from one illustration to another its purpose.
Adaptations complicate things. When adapting literature into a graphic novel the inevitable omissions alongside the medium’s low-brow connotations invite criticism, with reading the adaptation often stigmatised as “the lazy option”. But what if nothing is left out? Tony Parker’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ‘is a word–for-word transcription of Dick’s original novel’, containing the whole book. Consider this: if a graphic novel adaptation incorporates the entire text, is it as worthy as the original? Do pictures “reduce” the work by easing reading? Do they distract from the words, or amplify them?
These questions, prompted by adaptations, strike to the medium’s heart. The dichotomy between writing and illustration, the “novel” and the “graphic”, is intrinsic to the comic book literary debate. Despite the supposed frivolity associated with the images within, here I hope I have shown that comic books contain narrative craft that matches typical literature. In a world of generic paperbacks, a comic may have an unexpected amount to say. After all, a picture’s worth a thousand words.