When I was in library school at the turn of the century, comics and graphic novels were not yet universally accepted as a literary art form. Well, they’re still not universally accepted as a literary art form, but at least among most young and not-so-young librarians they are, maybe because we all had it beat into us at library school around the turn of the century: “There are great things being done in graphic form. There are works of art in every genre. It’s not all superheroes!”
Well, sure. And I believe that the books I was assigned to read were indeed works of art. I could objectively see how powerful Maus was… though personally I’d read other novels and histories of the Holocaust that had moved me more. I understood that The Tale of One Bad Rat* would be important to some teens… but it wasn’t to my personal taste. When I set my homework aside, I’d fall back into daydreaming about the ordinary prose YA novel I was writing… about a teenage superhero.
My feelings are summed up in this Tweet I ReTweeted the other week:
ONE MORE TIME: *comics* are a medium; *superheroes* are a genre.
— Kelly Sue DeConnick (@kellysue) May 19, 2016
The thing is, usually people put the emphasis on “comics are not just about superheroes,” because people use the form to create all kinds of serious, important literature. But some of us really like superheroes. We LOVE superheroes. We just can’t personally get into reading in panels.
I don’t know what it is. I’m rabid about the marriage of story and pictures in picture books (especially when the actual words are kept to a minimum), or in movies or theater. And I’ve never had trouble drawing my own mental pictures when reading strictly prose novels. But my brain has trouble absorbing lots of words and lots of pictures simultaneously. It’s too noisy to me. I can’t focus.
Sure, there have been exceptions. I loved reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage the other month (the perfection of the Alice in Wonderland chapter moved me to tears), but that book was broken up with large chunks of footnoted text. And as a kid I read the comics page of the newspaper over my breakfast every morning. Maybe when the story is kept to one to three panels, it’s not so overwhelming.
Down on the bottom right of the comics page, our newspaper kept the serialized stories. A newspaper strip may not seem like the greatest format for serial comics, because the first panel (or two) was always a recap. It’s slow-moving. I would skip a few of these. But two of them I read religiously: Little Orphan Annie and Spider-Man.
I loved Spider-Man. I loved Peter Parker: I loved that, unlike Clark Kent, he didn’t just pretend to be a total nerd to hide his secret identity, but he actually was a total nerd, one who just happened to have spider powers. I loved what a smart-alec he was, and how pulling on his mask really let him let loose with confidence and saying things that were harder to say when he was just being ordinary nerd Peter Parker. Sometimes it was frustrating to get his stories in the newspaper just a couple panels at a time, but trying to follow it in a comic book? Let alone in my tiny rural town where I didn’t exactly have ready access to comic books? That wasn’t happening.
Luckily, there was TV. I watched Saturday Morning Cartoons on NBC, including Spider-Man and Friends. This guy with a raspy voice would introduce each episode, imparting a moral or a question directly to us in the audience, and I was fascinated by the authority he had. “THIS is Stan Lee,” he’d always say. Who the heck was he? Why did he so obviously assume we’d care what he had to say about Spider-Man and Friends? …wait, what? He DID? And he’s actually talking to us on this cartoon instead of obliviously reveling in royalties on a yacht somewhere? …That’s awesome.
To be honest, I don’t think I realized comic books and superheroes were so closely linked. I was shocked Spider-Man had a creator, or at least one who would narrate his cartoons, because I felt like he and the other superheroes must have always been around, floating in the aether of the public domain if I’d known what that meant at the age of seven. I didn’t read comic books, but I knew lots about superheroes. My preschool best friend and I played Wonder Woman all the time (and yes, I had the Underoos). I found Spider-Man on TV and in the paper when I was a little older. I watched Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies in awe. After Saturday Morning Cartoons started being phased out in favor of weekday afternoon cartoons on Nickelodeon, I watched both the animated Batman and reruns of the ’60s Batman— the one I’d already met on Sesame Street years before. As a young teen I watched Lois and Clark and listened as my cousins related long plots of the X-Men cartoon (which was not on a channel I got, but come to think of it, my cousins got even fewer channels so I’m not entirely sure how they got away with that).
Mostly, I read. There weren’t many superheroes per se in the prose books I read. But there were heroic humans and magic users and classical demigods, all likewise wrestling with the balance between Great Power and Great Responsibility. I didn’t see any difference between them in concept. When I heard people dismiss comic books as trashy reading, I couldn’t understand why. The only real difference between them and prose novels was the format, but it didn’t seem to be the format they were complaining about. In the Baby-Sitters Club books, Claudia Kishi’s parents were always getting on her case about reading Nancy Drew, which they thought was trashy. Nancy Drew was my all-time favorite! And I was really smart, and I read everything I could get my hands on, including great literature (and The Baby-Sitters Club, which the Kishis would have probably also disapproved of had their daughter not been just a character in it)! So obviously people who dismissed some books as trashy simply didn’t know what they were talking about. Comic book stories were every bit as good as Nancy Drew… I assumed. Because again, I didn’t read comic books. But not out of literary snobbishness.
But just recently there’s been a sudden surge of superhero novels, in at least the children’s and YA section that is my specialty. Actual prose NOVELS! Books with more words than pictures! The big comics companies have each started entrusting their characters to prose writers, bringing us Gwenda Bond’s Lois Lane books and Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow for a start. But there are more original superhero novels than ever, too. In just this past year I’ve bought Searching for Super by Marion Jensen, School for Sidekicks by Kelly McCullough, and V is for Villain by Peter Moore for the library, not even counting the aforementioned already-famous characters’ stories, and even a prose novel by Stan Lee himself, The Zodiac Legacy. Shannon Hale, currently working on a Squirrel Girl prose book for Marvel and introducing a more swashbuckling sort of hero to beginning readers with the Princess In Black series, also wrote my favorite original superhero novel, Dangerous, a YA novel about —I love this— a one-armed homeschooled Latina teenager (and yes, every one of those things turns out to be important) who thought she was going to space camp and ended up saving the world from alien invasion and it is the greatest thing ever and I don’t understand how it is still one of her least-well-known books because it is everything I want in a superhero story: cool powers, conspiracies, moral dilemmas, reactions to power, team dynamics, high stakes! It feels just like watching the best of the superhero movies, but in a big thick book you can read at your own pace! I finished that book so satisfied, as if I’d been waiting all my life for such a reading experience. Finally, superhero reading for people who don’t like reading in panels!
And yet there’s a sense in geek culture that I can’t be a proper superhero fan unless I’m a comics fan. It’s the most common use of the “Fake Geek Girl” slam: “They only know these characters from the MCU and they only watch THOSE because they think those guys are handsome!” which in itself is unfair because I never had a crush on anybody in the MCU** until Agent Carter somehow gifted us with both James D’Arcy AND Enver Gjokaj in period clothing not to mention Peggy Carter herself who’s possibly the only woman to make me seriously question my heterosexuality BUT THAT IS NOT why that happens to be my favorite TV show of all time darn you ABC. No, I love the MCU because I love me a good superhero story, and now these stories are being told in formats I can get into!
I feel a little left out of superhero conversations. I can say I like a character, but someone else will go on and on about the things the character has done or said in the comics that I don’t know about. Or someone else will be so excited about a character I haven’t even met yet. Sometimes I enjoy when someone will point out a clue or easter egg in a show based on their comics knowledge (I’d heard enough theories about Daisy Johnson in this way that when “Daisy Bell” was first played in a flashback on Agents of SHIELD, even I went “OHHHH!” in realization). But sometimes I feel like my responses must be just wrong, since I don’t know this apparently all-important background information already. Sometimes I feel lonely as other people rejoice or rage over developments in the stories of characters I love but in formats I don’t read.
And I’ve tried. I’ve picked up G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel a few times at work. I really like her. But I find myself just wishing I could see this story unfold on screen instead, or just read it straight. Just write it out for me. My brain gets so distracted by everything happening on the spread that I lose track over and over.
The funny thing is, the graphic format is perfect for a lot of kids who find plain prose hard to follow. Their brains get hung up trying to spin all those words into pictures in the first place, and comics put it out there for them, give them something to hold onto. Dav Pilkey’s comic superhero Captain Underpants is a product of his own childhood struggles with ADHD. How much easier is it today for kids who need— or even just prefer— this format to find stories they can get into? And for all the kids who want this format but (gasp) aren’t into superheroes? There’s loads!
The other day a class of (somewhat advanced) third graders came into the library and I was set upon by a group of girls who had exhausted the works of Raina Telgemeier and desperately wanted “more graphic novels like that.” “Realistic? Or are you open to things like fantasy or science fiction?” JUST REALISM, they insisted. But once they’d cleared the shelf of The Popularity Papers and pronounced themselves beyond Dork Diaries (and SOOOO beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid don’t even ask), and taken El Deafo once I promised that even though everyone was drawn as a bunny it really was realism, I found myself coming up short of realistic graphic novels that were age-appropriate. “You, uh, SURE you don’t want any science fiction? This is a graphic novel retelling of my favorite book in the whole world,” as I held out Hope Larson’s A Wrinkle In Time. A few eyes lit up in recognition of the title, but then one by one they said, “Nah, just realistic.” (Good thing her Chiggers was right there beside it on the shelf, so we didn’t walk away from it completely unsuccessfully). In the end, the girls did leave with at least a couple of books each. But I thought, hmm, better watch myself: maybe I’ve let my own personal tastes influence my library purchasing too much. It’s so easy to find speculative fiction in graphic novels, though! But I forget: some people DO like their stories in comics form without the traditional comics subject matter.
I’d run a survey a few years ago, trying to decide how to shelve graphic novels in the YA section. Would people like it better to have all graphic novels, comics, and manga in one section? Or should it be shelved by author with the rest of the fiction? Or should stand-alones be shelved with fiction while series were shelved in a special section? I thought this last option might be best, because people browsing the fiction might discover some of these stand-alone titles more easily, but my survey said otherwise: the teens wanted all the graphics together. And they’ve proved themselves right: the stand-alone graphics circulate much better now that they’re in the special section. Some people like their stories in comics form. Some people don’t.
One last anecdote on my love of superheroes but frustration with comics. My best friend in high school could spin ridiculous stories out of thin air and caricatures of the people around us. At one sleepover she wrote an imaginary boyfriend into the story, who literally flew to the rescue when someone fell into the Grand Canyon. “So wait, in an airplane? Or is Billy a superhero now?” “I guess he’s a superhero,” she decided. I’m not sure how I ended up claiming a character she’d made up in the first place, but Billy fascinated me. I wanted to figure him out. Where did his superpowers come from? Why did he decide to become a hero? What was it like to be a superhero and an ordinary kid at the same time?*** I started to write, and came up with someone even geekier and angstier than Peter Parker, with a heart of gold and a possible autistic spectrum disorder, with hopes and dreams and an undying crush on my best friend, who for her part read what I’d written and said, “This is bad, but I think I really am in love with him.”
Oh, and Billy was a comic book geek. He’d read superhero comics as a sort of guide on how to (and not to) live with his powers. In reference to that, I tried to draw some of the stories I was writing in comic form, but it never got far. It was a whole lot easier to weave my pictures out of words than try to translate them through my inconsistent drawing ability. Without drawing, the stories I gave Billy were endless. Most of the time they were just everyday interactions I would have with him in my head, walking together as we’d joke or discuss music or news or our mutual friends. And this has been going on now for over twenty years.
Yes, darnit. I have an imaginary superhero friend who won’t go away, and in all this time I still haven’t managed to give him a story that’s good enough to be published in an actual book. But not for want of trying.
*Sure, it wasn’t all about superheroes, but how come all our assigned graphic novels were about rodents? THAT is a stereotype graphic novels don’t need, either.
**And now they’ve managed to get Martin Freeman into the MCU SO NOW IT IS COMPLETE, says I. I mean not really, I know it could get more women-and-minority-led movies in, but I’m BEING HYPERBOLIC.
***In an interesting twist/evidence of our own particular geekiness, he was also George Harrison’s nephew. This had a lot more important influence on his backstory than you might expect, and is also the reason why I still sometimes refer to George Harrison as “Uncle George,” and then have to explain myself to people who don’t know me so they don’t think George Harrison is actually my uncle.