The Wednesday Waffle: Issue Nineteen - Putting away childish things. Or, y'know, not.

February 7, 2019

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." 1 Corinthians 13:11

 

A long time ago, aged about fifteen, I sat in my school hall while our Deputy Headteacher*, a certain Mr Headly (known to all as "Deadly Headly" - a moniker he had earned over the course of years) read that verse from the Book of Corinthians to us. It was time, he opined, to put away "childish things" and embrace our responsibilities as students about to embark on our G.C.S.E. studies. 

 

I remember back then, full of adolescent confidence and sure beyond measure of my ground - in the way only a fifteen year old can be - thinking "Nah". And you know what? Almost uniquely amongst the opinions I held at the time, I look back and think that I was totally right.

 

I was reminded of this recently by the kerfuffle surrounding the stance taken by an American Talk Show Host (I'm not naming him, he's a professional controversialist who craves your outrage and attention - he doesn't deserve it) following the death of Stan Lee. He took the view that the reaction to the great man's death was over the top, and that the fact that America was a country where adults thought comics were important sort of summed up how dumb that society had become.

 

There was, as you can imagine, some social media backlash, but the talk show host in question doubled down, insisting that comics are a medium for children and semi-literates. (I'm paraphrasing the talk show host, but that is a direct quote from somebody who will surprise you - more on that a bit later...)

So, to be clear, the line we take at Destination Venus is simple. Comics are a rich and vibrant medium - sometimes they are indeed produced for Children, the likes of Hilda, as seen above, would be an, as I guess would be the perennial Beano and the more traditional Archie Comics

 

Sometimes they're dumb, escapist nonsense - any number of superhero books spring to mind - and that's OK. Large amounts of the material produced in pretty much every medium is dumb, escapist nonsense. From Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to the comic songs of Tom Lerher, to the novels of Jane Austen, to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to frescos of Roman gods waving their bits around on the walls of posh Roman villas on Pompeii. (To name but a few.)

 

All of the above examples were created with the express purpose of entertaining people. All succeeded. All were hugely popular with their intended audience, many have retained thier popularity to the present day. So clearly just because a thing was created to entertain an audience doesn't preclude that thing from also being thought provoking, mentally stimulating - even wise.

 

So, now the question is "are comics different from other mediums like novels, movies, TV shows and such?" And the answer must surely be "No" - and an emphatic "No" at that. Comics are just words and pictures arranged to tell a narrative - just another way to convey ideas.

 

Which means there's only one question left - "Is there something about the nature of comics that limits the medium only to telling stories which are either for children, or are just dumb escapism? Can comics aspire to artistic greatness, or are they simply a disposable medium for simple stories and uncomplicated ideas?"

 

And there are many people who would say that the answer to the question was "Absolutely yes." You've probably heard the reasoning. Young, pre-literate, children enjoy picture books. As their reading skills develop they move on from picture books to what some would call "proper books". Since comics can't tell their stories without using pictures (or by definition they can't be called comics) such people would argue that comics equate to picture books and are thus inherently inferior.

 

The thing is though, those people are wrong. On every level.

 

For a start, even if there was something inherently childish about picture books - and I'd argue strongly that there isn't - comics are not "picture books". Comics use pictures as part of the narrative structure, in the same way that picture books do, but they also use words. To fully understand the story you need to understand both.

 

Of course, as a medium comics are more accessible than novels to people who have difficulties with literacy because you can read the pictures and get a sense - often a good sense of the narrative without the need for words, I'll probably talk about the lendary Batman #433 and Gibbs & Musson's excellent Knight & Dragon in another waffle sometime. Both are completely silent (well, Knight & Dragon is - Batman #433 contains the command "Get out.") with the story being carried by the pictures alone.

 

Speaking personally I think this accessibility is one of the things that makes the medium great. As a dyslexic I really wish I'd been encouraged to read more comics as a child, and as a former teacher I can absolutely confirm that comics are a powerful tool in the classroom. But I do wonder if some of the hostility towards the medium from the likes of that American Talk Show Host is rooted in this accessibility. Is their disdain rooted in shallow intellectual snobbery?

 

The logic would run something like this: "People with poor literacy skills can read comics. I am a very clever person who can read really well, therefore comics are not for me. Because I am clever and comics are not for me, comics must be for people who are not clever and so are inferior." I would hope that the flaws in such logic are obvious, but experience tells me that there are a lot of people who think in that way.

 

Of course it's easy to just dismiss such opinions because we don't like them  - and to dismiss the people who hold those views. So I'm going to challenge myself by considering the the views of the man who once described comics as a "for kids and semi-literates" and who recently said in an interview that the problem with comics started "when people decided that they're not just a medium for children, because they are".

 

Who said that? Not our American Talk Show Host. No, both of those quotations are from a certain Alan Moore. Yes, that Alan Moore.

 

Which on the face of it seems odd, because if there was one writer who had done the most to demonstrate that comics were capable of going way beyond any such limits it would be him. 

It's not just that the content of a book like From Hell, the intricate study of the case of Jack the Ripper that Moore did with artist Eddie Campbell is inappropriate for children (although it is - please don't give From Hell to kids unless you like them having nightmares) it's a complex, multi-faceted story. It has so much literary merit it's practically dripping off the pages.

 

And then, of course, there's Lost Girls which Moore worked on with artist Melinda Gebbie. This centres on a meeting between Alice, of Wonderland fame, Wendy, from Peter Pan and Dorothy from the land of Oz.

 

A scenario likes this could of course be an incredibly whimsical tale for children. But it's written by Alan Moore, so it isn't. Moore has in fact described Lost Girls as his "porno project". Whether it count's as porn or not would, I suppose depend on your definition of "pornography", but it is certainly very sexually graphic - and would most definitley count as "Adult" material by any definition.

 

So, I respectfully differ with Moore on this. I reckon his work alone demonstrates that comics, as a medium, while accessible to "kids and semi-lterates"* are far from being a "childish thing". And even if they were, what is the point of putting such things away if they still bring you joy?

 

So, our American Talk Show Host can, frankly, do one. If he, and those who take his view, choose to miss out on the things that comics can give them, so be it. If they choose to judge those of us who get it in a negative way, so be that too. We have the advantage of being right - and to steal a phrase from Simon Pegg, "Being a Geek is about never having to apologise for loving the things you love".

 

And you know what? We never will.

 

As Stan Lee  would say,

 

"EXCELSIOR!"

 

 

 

 

*And to be fair to Moore when he used such a derogetory term he was doing so to challenge its use...

 

 

 

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