When the average person hears “comic book,” he or she likely does not associate it with scholarly thought.
An escapist platform for the everyday, comics traditionally afforded children a glimpse into the life of heroes and transformed the mundane into the super. But after Art Spiegelman published his pictorial historical memoir “Maus” in 1991 and then won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1992, graphic novels began to assume a didactic function. Throughout the 1990s, this style exploded in popularity. The development was revolutionary, mostly because literature had always focalized on words.
Now, more than ever, graphic novels and comics capture aspects of reality through abstraction. According to Hertha Sweet Wong, an associate professor in the department of English at UC Berkeley, “before the fairly recent rise of scholarly work on comics, (they) had had a profoundly undervalued position in U.S. culture.” In the brief period since their hike in popularity, graphic novels have evolved beyond their stigmatized genres and instead draw upon topics of political and societal disillusionment — on the most graphic and jarring events of the past and present.
This seems important. But is the hype more than mere zeitgeist?
Paul Purcell is the manager of the Escapist Comic Bookstore in Berkeley. He says the adaptability of graphic novels legitimizes their contemporary popularity.
“Everything that you can imagine being written or shown in a movie, any kind of genre, whether political or scientific or historical, can be covered with the graphic novel,” Purcell said. “The range that applies to books, as far as what they offer, (also) applies to comic books. They’re not just limited to superheroes. Graphic novels as a medium are unlimited in what they can do.”
This limitless potential has recently been reflected in school curriculums, with the intention of affording students a different understanding of social and historical events. Isabel Johnson, a UC Berkeley freshman, says analyzing graphic novels in her American Cultures class last semester lent a new dimension to the traditional autobiographical angle.
“We read “Fun Home” — an autobiography of sorts — about Alison Bechdel’s coming of age when she was discovering her sexual orientation and identity and (we talked about) how this related to her relationship with her father,” Johnson said. “I think there were certain things that the visual did that couldn’t be described with words alone. It was very poignant.”
Indeed, the presence of visual art effectively fosters a more intimate connection between author and reader. Each line, sketch and mistake, diligently rendered by the artist, is unapologetically raw, and the resultant images are a series of transmissions from the artist’s imagination to that of the public. According to UC Berkeley freshman Masha Paramonova, these images have the potential to ground the immutability and reality of the events of a story.
“I’m reading this graphic novel called “Trinity,” about the atomic bomb,” Paramonova said. “The author had a lot of help from scientists to keep it factually accurate, and I think it’s very interesting. You can read a paper on the atomic bomb, and it would be intriguing, but the pictures really pull you in and alert you to the gravity of the situation.”
Yet a comic would not exist without an effective marriage of text and images, which interplay to bring about an authentic and cultured art form that deserves recognition among all ages and backgrounds. The necessary dialect between the two balances an artist’s message.
“Graphic novels are a more accessible way of understanding different stories because they’re not as intimidating as a block of text strung together,” said Christine Kellogg, sidelines manager at Pegasus Books in Downtown Berkeley. “Because you have pictures, there’s no need to describe what’s happening. You have to find other subtleties. There’s something else underlying these stories.”
Simultaneously an enduring emblem of childhood and geek culture, comics are a chameleon of an art form that have effortlessly made their debut onto an “adult” stage of social issues and introspection. As they gain positive repute for their depth, the evolution of graphic novels as a medium of expression questions the trivialization of these works. Ultimately, the cliche of the adult-adolescent-meets-pubescent-comic-collection is gradually giving way to an understanding of the meaningful subtleties and the intentioned nuances of this adapting art form.
“When you read a graphic, there’s already a suspension of belief,” Johnson said. “You realize that these pictures are drawn, so you can ignore any disconnect between what’s plausible and actually focus on what they’re trying to tell you.”