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Culture: Are Comic Books Real Books?
Friday, 27 October 2006 Written by Alexander G. Rubio
Tony Long
There are those, your's truly among them, who pride themselves on being something of a stick in the mud. Not everything new is necessarily progress. And some things that lasted for a long time, did so for a reason.

But then again, you have those who are so set in their ways and preconceptions that everything new is a change for the worse, and any change for the worse must be caused by something new.

Wired's Tony Long seems to march under this banner. Back in February he posited that new technology, such as the internet, email and mobile phones, was to blame for the decay of young people's language skills.

Now the culprit for lowering standards is an old stand-by, the comic book.

From Will Eisner´s
"A Contract With God"
(Click for larger image)
It is, of course, hardly the first time comic books have had to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged conservatives. In the early 50s psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham's book "Seduction of the Innocent" claimed that the comic books of the day led to juvenile delinquency, violence, sex and drug use, and sparked off a backlash which forced publishers to establish the Comics Code Authority, charged with self-censoring the industry, rather than having censorship forced upon them.

Needless to say quality dropped, and comics took a multi decade turn for the juvenile and unoffensive. But years later, in the 1980s, partly inspired by one of the greats of the pre-Comics Code era, Will Eisner, the genre started reclaiming the adult themes it had once discarded, and started producing works of far greater ambition and scope than ever before.

These new works, often called graphic novels, were far more complex in structure, theme and characterisation, and brought new found prestige to the genre.

But Mr Long feels that despite this, the comic book genre is not worthy to enter the Parnassus with its pure bred wordy brethren. The fact that Gene Luen Yang's comic "American Born Chinese" has been nominated for a National Book Award in the young people's literature category, has him manning the gates against the barbarians.
I have not read this particular "novel" but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here. First, I'll bet for what it is, it's pretty good. Probably damned good. But it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

Not having read the book in question either, I can't say whether it deserves to be on the shortlist for this particular award. But that's not germane to the point in any case.

The question is if the genre deserves to be judged by the same standards and on the same level as traditional literature. Long is in little doubt.
If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award, the American equivalent of France's Prix Goncourt or Britain's Booker Prize, is exceedingly difficult.
Sorry, but no comic book, regardless of how cleverly executed, belongs in that class.

Having written a couple of books, I feel at least somewhat qualified to pass judgement on Long's claims. Is it hard to write a real novel? Very, at least to write a decent one. But, not having tried my hand at it, I'm pretty sure that the answer to the same question as regards the graphic novel, would be exactly the same as well.

One need only mention such obvious titles as Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize winning "Maus", or Alan Moore's works, such as his 1986 deconstruction of the superhero genre, "Watchmen", which not only tackles deep and controversial themes, but was also, and rightly so, on Time magazine list of the 100 all time greatest English language novels since 1923.

Are there more great novels than graphic novels? Of course. Not only doesn't the genre have a back catalogue stretching back Cervantes, but established attitudes, like the ones represented by Long, and practical concerns (you either have to be an able draughtsman yourself, or know someone who is, to produce work), steers more talent into traditional fiction than comics. Set beside the centuries old novel, the comic book/graphic novel is still in its infancy.