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The Wednesday Waffle Issue #38: Literary genius

The Wednesday Waffle seems to have evolved into an occasional rather than a weekly series. There are two reasons for this change - partly lack of time to write the thing, and partly the lack of anything interesting to say. The news stories and comics announcements tend to end up over in the "Geeking with Destination Venus" show notes so there seems little point in repeating them here. So for the foreseeable future we'll only be waffling on a Wednesday when we have something to waffle about.

Which is why we're here now. A conversation with a customer in our Harrogate comics store last weekend re-kindled a train of thought that has been bouncing around my head since my University days. Back then, in the mid-nineties comics were in the middle of the infamous "nineties bubble". Sales were up, brash new publishes such as Image Comics were taking on Marvel and DC comics by launching their own superhero universes and everyone was chasing the next big gimmick - you couldn't move for die-cut, holographic, glow-in-the-dark, animated, lenticular covers.

Obviously it couldn't last, and it didn't. But it was against that background that a fanboy in his mid twenties needed a question for their English Literature dissertation. I settled on the question "Are Comics Literature" - committing the ultimate academic sin of anticipating the results of my research before I started. I had the very firm intention that my conclusion would be "Yes, of course they are". So nobody was more surprised than me when, having spent a lot of time analysing how literature and comics work, that in fact they're not.

My customer pointed out that the vast majority of the internet says that they are. So. This is where I try to explain why the internet is wrong. Don't worry - I'm not about to reprise all 12,000 words of my dissertation, I'll keep it brief. So, if you ask the internet "what is literature?" this is the definition Google will supply:

literature /ˈlɪt(ə)rətʃə/ noun

  1. written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit. "a great work of literature" Similar: written works, writings, (creative) writing, literary texts, compositions, letters, belles-lettres, printed works, published works, humanities, arts, liberal arts

  2. books and writings published on a particular subject. "the literature on environmental epidemiology" Similar: publications, published writings, texts, reports, studies, relevant works

  3. leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice. "advertising and promotional literature"

Under that definition Comics would certainly fall under the "Literature" banner, but then so would the writing on the back of a cereal and the flyer I got yesterday from a local estate agent informing me that if I wanted to I could easily sell my house.

In other words, that definition won't do. It's too broad to be useful in an academic discussion so we need to define our terms a little bit more accurately and consider what we actually mean when we use the word "Literature" in this context.

If you get a bunch of people together and ask them what they think "Literature" is they'll give you a range of answers, but the focus will be very much on things like "stories", "words", "Shakespeare", "poetry" and so on. My favourite distillation of all of that came from a former 'A' Level student of mine who summed it up as "communicating meaning through words".

That's an excellent working definition which covers pretty much everything that comes up if you ask a bunch of people for examples of things they consider to be literature. If you do that you get "The Great Works" from "The Great Writers" - tomes from writers such as Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Hemingway, Joyce. The usual suspects in other words. Or else you'll get the poetry of the likes of Wordsworth, Byron and Shelly, or he plays of the likes of Shakespeare, Miller, Ibsen and Beckett.

Basically, nobody puts Watchmen or Man Without Fear on the list. So. Comics appear not to be what most people think of as Literature. I would contend that there is a very good reason for this - I would contend that this is because comics (by which I mean all graphic narrative and sequential art - whether you label it "comics", "Manga", "band desinee" or anything else...) are in fact not literature - they are something else entirely.

For me, the difference is this. Literature is entirely about words. Yes you can have illustrations, but that's really all they are. If I pick up my wife's* illustrated copy of Pride and Prejudice from the bookshelf and flick through it none of the pictures it contains add anything to the narrative. That's not how literature works.

To move away from prose and into poetry, even the work of a poet as keen on illustration as William Blake - a print maker by trade who actually went so far as to invent new techniques so that his books could be as lavishly illustrated as possible - does not need you to see the pictures to appreciate the poem. Take a look below.

William Blakes The Tyger, featuring his illustrations
William Blakes The Tyger, featuring his illustrations

Comics however are different. They are about both words and pictures. Take the illustrations out of an illustrated novel or poem and you lose none of the meaning. Take the pictures out of a comic and you don't have a comic anymore - because the pictures are not mere illustrations, they are an integral part of the narrative. Take them away and you are usually left with snippets of dialogue with no real context.