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Are Comics Literature?

Updated on August 12, 2015
Charlie weeps over his undeserved obscurity....
Charlie weeps over his undeserved obscurity....

Can comic books be "classics?"

Literature takes many forms, but let's just be honest: when most people think of classics, they hardly think of Snoopy and Charlie Brown. And yet when you think about it, Snoopy and Charlie Brown have been around longer than books that are considered classic children’s literature (i.e., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published around 1964).

And they are just the tip of the comic character iceberg; there are many other comic characters that have marched across the rainbow of human creativity and carved out their own corners of immortal color. Therefore they deserve our careful consideration, which brings us to this post’s ultimate query:

Can something as allegedly childish as a comic really be considered a “classic” work of literature?

America’s redheaded stepchild

With careful research (and by that I mean five seconds on Wikipedia), you can discover for yourself the vast and bafflingly expansive history of the artwork that so many people label as “kids stuff”—or as mere pastimes for troglodytes living in their moldy basements.

(I refute neither of these accusations. But they are much rarer than people think.

I hope.)

Let's actually look at some examples. Consider Archie Andrews. He first appeared in 1941 and his hapless adventures in Riverdale are still going on today.

(Never mind the fact that they’ve lost their old wholesome flavor and are mostly being used as vehicles for social propaganda and ideology. One thing, at least, has not changed: Archie’s utter lack of fashion sense. Some things are just unchangeable, America.)

Why has this geeky, freckled, red-headed teen become for comics what Tom Sawyer became to literature: namely, an adolescent pain in the crack that we just can’t escape?

Archie and his pals are the personification of small town America. They portray in a comedic light the typical stereotypes of high school teenagers while additionally exploring themes of friendship, hard work, and family. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what makes life worthwhile? Archie is immortal for the same reason that Tom Sawyer is immortal: because he illustrates the struggles and triumphs of the everyday.

FREEZE. We're relevant.
FREEZE. We're relevant.

You fat, lazy blockhead

I’ve already mentioned the Peanuts strip, which began in the 1950’s and is considered one of the best-written comics of all time. But let’s not forget others like Garfield, the obnoxious tabby cat who gave new meaning to the words “fat” and lazy.” He’s been around since the late seventy’s, which makes him almost 40. That’s older than me.

And let us not neglect the non-Sunday-funnies-like characters such as Peter Parker (one of the most buff fictional men ever,), Tony Stark (what I wouldn’t do to Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Wayne, and a score of others who’s adventures explore many of the same themes as classic literature: justice, loyalty, honesty, truth, betrayal, heartbreak, and the fine, fuzzy line between what is right and what is easy.

Hark! I smell....FAME!
Hark! I smell....FAME!
What fanboys think cosplay is
What fanboys think cosplay is
What cosplay actually is
What cosplay actually is

A worldwide infection

And of course American comics aren’t the only ones worth noting. Japanese manga has been around longer than your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, their great-grandparents—look, it’s pretty damn old, is my point.

In fact, manga gurus (a.k.a. people in chatrooms) speculate that the term “manga” was coined by an artist named Hokusai, who lived from 1760-1849 and left behind over 30,000 pieces. This basically means the he is the father of modern manga. This also means that we can blame him for spawning the horrifying modern spectacle known as “cosplay,” a yearly ritual that consists of grown ass adults dressing up in capes and pretending they have magic powers for a weekend.

Questionable hobbies aside, maybe something was in the air during that century, for Hokusai actually lived during the same period as other great novelists who were busy teaching us important lessons at the time. This includes Jane Austen (1775-1817), who taught us that guys that are rich, well-read, or charming have trouble keeping their trousers where they belong (if you get my drift), Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855), who is responsible for introducing the idea that adultery is fantastic if you’re upper class, and Frances Burney (1752-1840), who pointed out how annoying naiveté can really be and why those kinds of people should have no friends.

We're not better than cavemen

Ultimately, we modern “intellectuals” are hardly one to pooh-pooh the comic venue, for some of the earliest records of man’s storytelling abilities consist of drawings. Not books. The Tale of Genji is commonly considered to be the world’s first novel (at least in the modern understanding) and it didn’t show up until roughly the 12th century. Cave drawings, on the other hand, popped up in history before Jesus, Buddha, and even McDonald's caramel frappes.

This isn’t something to lament over. In fact, it’s another reason to praise mankind’s creativity. It’s cool to think that even when we lived in caves, we didn’t let something like the nonexistence of writing stop us. We just channeled our innate desire to create through pictures.

I defy Leonardo to do better
I defy Leonardo to do better

Conclusion: Humanity is pretty awesome

So I think the answer to the above question is yes, comics can be considered classic literature. Whether they are dark, gritty, lighthearted, or wholesome, they strive to touch on the same themes as classic literature.

The fact that they do so visually rather than linguistically doesn’t make them inferior; it just makes them an alternative art form that ultimately expresses the same themes that humanity has always struggled with throughout the ages.


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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      We've got our comic 'classics' here in the UK as well, although not exactly in the same style as yours. Ours stemmed from a publishing company called D C Thompson based in Aberdeen (Scotland), a 'raft' of comic papers for kids called 'The Beano', 'The Dandy' and 'The Topper' with characters such as The Bash Street Kids, Dennis The Menace, Minnie The Minx, Desperate Dan (an American cowboy with a big appetite for cow pie - with the horns sticking out). They weren't meant to be 'Literature' as such, just entertainment for kids. They bridged the social divide, being bought as much by Public* schoolboys at for example Eton and Harrow, as by elementary school kids in the slums or the suburbs. Original editions from the 1930's in good or 'mint' condition go for silly money, a year's editions possibly adding up to lots of £000's.

      * Public schools here are fee-paying schools for those with deep pockets. When D C Thompson first published, ordinary kids went to elementary school until the age of 14, then it was out to work. The intermediate level was the Grammar School, fee paying for some with scholarships for the brighter ones from families who could afford to do without the extra income (mostly with fathers who were skilled workers on good wages or shopkeepers).