Why read comics?

Graphic novels have for some time been given the critical reception appropriate to their cultural relevance and formal complexity. Thanks to a few early luminaries like Maus by Art Spiegelman, Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and later Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, critics (and more importantly everyone else) came to regard the graphic novel as a vehicle which was capable of carrying some serious cargo.

I am really glad that comics have been afforded this critical attention and have been given more respect by the culture-at-large; and I am happy for this because it means that more people read them and thus more people decide to write them. I like having diversity in my reading. That said, hopefully comics won’t ever become too respectable as that might mean they’d trade some of the freedom the form affords. Which brings me to the point of this—which I will confidently place in the figurative hands of Marshall McLuhan:

The medium is the message.”

Yes, this is a slightly worn-out quote, but for brevity, few quotes work as well when discussing comic books; after all, their form is as important, if not arguably more, than their content. And as McLuhan knew, media is flat–not in the sense of two-dimensional images on paper telling a story through the simulacra of time, but rather that media resists some forms of hierarchy (the Nike swoosh being as “hot” an image as that of Shakespeare). And this is why comic books are really useful educational tools.

There’s a lot of talk about media literacy–which is a really big thing! I mean, both of those terms are pretty massive. So what does each mean? Let’s start with literacy: condensed, it’s the capacity to sufficiently comprehend signifiers. And media, well McLuhann defines it as: actually…hmmm…McLuhan believed in a constant multivalency, so he might have made the case for media really as information-with-intent. When we say media literacy, we usually mean something which includes teaching students to decipher the relevance, intention, and placement of television shows, video games, books, sites, RSS feeds, and…comic books.

Long-time readers of comic books, while sometimes unaware of the subject’s related academic lexicon, nonetheless intuitively understand media literacy: to read a comic is so much more than the written word; it’s about reading the images (across several illustrators sometimes), reading time as if flows at different rates across the page indicated by both story and format, reading progressively and holographically (sometimes a story must be read by seeing all the panels in a spread at once) and most importantly reading with flexibility.

Graphic novels still include stories of strong-men in tights battling it out with villains–many of these are quite good (thinking of you All-Star Superman), but many creators (say…Chris Ware) are shifting their stories into shapes that are new and teach us about, as John Berger might say, “ways of seeing” which transcend the medium.

If you are interested in investigating some of the best from 2013, take a look at the brief list below as a helpful place to start:

Battling Boy by Paul Pope

Age 12 and up. Tells the story as only Pope can about a kid with either alien or godlike parents who is sent to help our earth with the aid of several powered-up graphic tee-shirts (click here for a review by this author).

In a Glass Grotesquely by Richard Sala

16+. A series of villain-themed interrelated short stories, told in vibrant watercolor art. This graphic novel is a selection of related short mysteries and thrills, all depicted in Sala’s trademark colorful watercolor washes and sharp, detailed line-work (from Publisher).

Ichiro by Ryan Inzana

12+ Tells the story of Ichiro, a half-Japanese, half-white teenager from Brooklyn, who travels to Japan with his mother to stay with his grandfather. After trying to trap a racoon, Ichi gets dragged down a hole in the ground into the realm of the kami–the realm of gods and spirirts. With words and pictures, this story seamlessly interweaves myth and reality, life and death, gods and mortals, and creates a boy’s search for acceptance, peace, and a place to call home.

Hellboy ~ The Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola

16+. Tells a macabre story of young Hellboy as he is lured into a very creepy circus with plans for Hellboy’s future.

Hawkeye ~ My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction

16+. Lo-key, almost true-crime of the day-in-day-out of the Avengers’ least powered member, Hawkeye. Character-driven and honest, with a minimal yet evocative art style, this collection presents Hawkeye as a flawed, struggling, New Yorker who lives in a walk-up, has roof-top barbecues with neighbors, and sometimes has to deal with mafia members and super-villains. Luckily he has good insurance through the Avengers.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

All ages. Tells, in two volumes, the story of two sides of the Boxer Rebellion.

Thor : God of Thunder ~ The God Butcher by Jason Aaron

13+. Intricately woven story telling of different versions of Thor in battle with a being bent on killing all of gods in all places across all of time.

Very Casual by Michael Deforge

16+. Super weird. Includes meat-filled snowmen, displaced deer made of slime, drag queens and more. Themes blend absurdism with everyday troubles. Also collects Weird Spotting Deer, “which won the Pigskin Peters Award for best non-traditional, non-narrative or avant-garde work at the 2011 Doug Wright Awards” (from Publisher).

By This You Shall Know Him by Jesse Jacobs

12+. From the publisher, “Within the book’s confines, Jacobs states that the reader will “bear witness to the limitless ambitions of a gang of celestial beings as they fiddle and fuss with all sorts of molecular arrangements, creating infinitely detailed patterns and strange new worlds brimming with bizarre life forms. Part art-book, part graphic novel, By This Shall You Know Him depicts all manner of beast running, crawling and slithering towards death’s cold embrace.”

The Giant Beard That Was Evil by by Stephen Collins

16+. Uses a man’s beard–which won’t stop growing–to address conformity, loss-of-control, and death.

And if you would like to read some theory and history, read on:

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