Of all the panels at San Diego the one we most wanted to see podcast or transcribed or whatever was COMICS ARE NOT LITERATURE and now Newsarama has a report by Zack Smith, although two of the participants have already said it isn’t entirely accurate. Dammit, we should have been there.

Wolk criticized comics written by Joss Whedon, saying that, “the artists can’t create great actors on the page,” that is, people who bring extra layers to the characters the way a flesh-and-blood actor could. “You’re just reading a script with a bunch of crappy pictures on it – but it’s a great script,” Wolk said.

Wolk asked Grossman, who had brought some prepared statements, about whether there was anything in the definition of “sophistication” that could be useful to comics.

“One of the downsides of thinking of comics as a ‘low art,’ is that it makes you lazy,” Grossman said. “Let’s raise the game.”

Castellucci and Ryan agreed. “It’s about having a set of critical tools, and what you use the tools on is wherever people are making good stories,” Ryan said.

“Why don’t we just call it art?” Nadel said. “Sometimes cinema is art, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a Bjork record is art, sometimes it’s not…” Castellucci and Ryan interjected that a Bjork album is always art.

Nadel went on to propose that he didn’t consider comics reading. “Why is that a big deal?” he asked. “Comics is about looking and reading. It’s not just about reading – it’s a dual process. It’s different from reading a novel, and it’s different from watching a movie.”

Douglas tells us he didn’t mention Joss Whedon specifically, and Cecil has her own footnotes.



  1. Someone also noted that we do not read pictures in comics, but look at them. I disagree with that. We read the pictures as surely as archeologists read hieroglyphics . They’re not the same, I know, but that was the closes thing I could come up with, this early in the morn. If anyone would like further proof, check out Kingdom Come. I’ve always felt that Alex Ross was telling an entirely different story with his paintings then what accompanied them in text.

  2. Since we read any sign or symbol that stands if for something else (even a photograph of a cat is not the cat) we definitely read comics.

    While Joss Whedon can’t demand great actors, he can demand great artists. Just as a great actor brings more to the role than simply standing there and spouting the lines from his or her pretty face, a great artist brings more to the artwork than simply plunking down well-rendered heads next to the speech bubbles. There are many artists who can render beautifully but are lousy visual storytellers.

    It’s a little depressing that a conversation called “Comics are not literature” took place at Comic Con at all. Quality doesn’t even factor into it, but that seems to be the focus of the dispute. There is great storytelling and bad storytelling, but no matter how spectacularly bad it is, it’s still storytelling. The whole discussion mainly highlights insecurity and self-loathing in the comic form. It’s literature, much of it crappy, just as in straight letterform literature. Get over it and aim to make good stuff.

  3. This is essentially a semantic argument. The basic issue, though, is the tendency to describe comics using terminology hijacked from other media. Sometimes this reflects a genuine equivalence, and sometimes it’s a spurious attempt to claim comparability with a more “respectable” medium. I can’t see a rational objection to the word “read” in relation to comics, since that’s just common English.

    On the other hand, I’ve always thought the term “graphic novel” was a little questionable, or at least applied over-broadly to refer to comics whose prose counterparts would have been little more than short stories. (A case can be made that comics are more like static films than “graphic novels”, and that they’re not especially close to either.)

    But whether you want to call comics “literature” is a hair-splitting debate. If you’re going to be utterly literal-minded, then “literature” comes from the same route as “literacy” and it’s primarily about written text. Therefore it isn’t an apt choice of word for comics. On the other hand, if you can talk by analogy about “media literacy”, and if the concept of literature can encompass material like drama, then I see no reason why an expanded definition of the term couldn’t encompass comics.

    Seen in that light, I don’t regard it as a very helpful question. It takes a potentially intriguing issue about the properties (and arguably the pretensions) of comics and frames it in such a way as to make it into a rather fiddly argument about the meaning of “literature”, to which there is no clear answer because “literature”, like most words, has a range of meanings.

    Besides, focussing too much on the similarities between comics and other media runs the risk of clouding proper analysis and losing sight of (or at least unduly de-emphasising) the properties that make comics unique. If comics are a distinct medium – which they clearly are – it may not be especially helpful to describe them by reference to terminology appropriated from other media, even when it suits our aspirations to do so.

  4. There is such a thing as “visual literacy”.

    Imagine “reading” ONLY the text of the Watchmen, or Maus, with no visual accompaniment. Imagine the text that would be required to describe the missing visual information if a graphic novel was transcribed to a pure letterform version.

    I used to agree that the term “graphic novel” was a bit pretentious, but then I had a conversation with a Vietnamese immigrant about “comics” and he had the hardest time understanding that there were “comic books” that were not funny. So that term ain’ t perfect either.

    Broadcasts, plays, film, music, oral histories are all literature. This discussion is time wasted in navel examination.

  5. Who CARES if comix are literature? Who contrasts mediums like that and for what purpose? Are comix like aquariums? Are baseballs like ice cream?

    We have a hard enough time mixing words with pictures much less interpreting the mix.

    Besides, didn’t words come AFTER pictures?

  6. It is ironic that as Wolk and others were holding a panel called “Comics Are Not Literature,” Comicon was hosting the 15th annual Comic Arts Conference just down the hall, an academic conference in which literature critics and scholars gather to share their work in this very field.

    And the Comic Arts Conference is only one such conference. The Comic and Comic Art section of the Popular Culture Association has been meeting for over twenty years doing the same thing. The International Comic Arts Festival is on the east coast, and even the stodgy and conservative Modern Language Association — the association of literary professors in English — had panels on comics at their last couple of annual conferences. Anyone who has attended these conferences will hear professional literary scholars and critics — grad students and PhDs — present their work on everything from ACME Novelty to Watchmen. Sometimes in (gasp!) a foreign language.

    Sound boring? How about Image Text, an online academic journal dedicated to the literature of comics. Or our print-only academic journal, the International Journal of Comic Art (IJOCA). About half a dozen PhD dissertations are completed every year on comics, as you can see for yourself at Gene Kannenberg’s useful site teachingcomics.org. I myself have been studying comics as literature at the University of California and am completing my PhD on the topic. I teach comics as literature to freshmen students every quarter.

    There are yet people who may say that comics are not literature, but I think the evidence is on my side when I say those people are misinformed.

  7. The title “Comics Are Not Literature” is not a statement that comics are “low” art, unworthy of regard, and I really, really doubt that the assembled panel represents that point of view, and I really, really doubt a panel representing that point of view would be held at Comicon. At the beginning of that article, you will see that Wolk describes the title as a deliberate provocation. As Paul O’Brien says above, it’s a semantic arguement about using the terminology and standards of prose literature in relation to comics. I’ve seen similar objections to the use of cinematic terms in relation to comics art. The point is that comics are comics, and we should develop our own critical language to discuss them without trying to analogize them to other media.

    I’m not big on semantic arguments like this; I tend to agree with Paul Pope above – who cares? But I get the point that’s being made by this panel. At least people in this comments section seem to have read the article, or at least Heidi’s summary, unlike the folk in the Newsarama comments section!

  8. Literature is timeless. Anyone in any time period can relate to it.

    I find it interesting that some people feel threatened by this conversation. The title of that panel was only meant as a vehicle for the participants to start on. There’s is nothing wrong with people wanting to discuss the inner workings of a subject that they love. If you’re not into it, just don’t take part in it. There’s no need to shout down those who are.

  9. Maybe some of us have already figured out our own answer for it and are tired of treading the same ground that’s been tread for twenty plus years (and before that, but I’m speaking of personal experience here.) I figure it’s more meaningful to be out there telling stories and making art than to talk about whether what you’re doing is art or not.

    But that’s me. If you want to keep talking, keep on a-talking.

  10. Generally, when people are referring to comics as literature, they’re saying nothing more than that comics can express the same great themes and use similar modes and structure that the great novels can. I took a course called Film as Literature that applied this same discussion model to cinema. By saying that comics can be literature, people are just trying to say that comics can be about more than mere entertainment. The semantic of “literature” isn’t all that helpful (as its used too variously) but that’s what people are trying to say.

    I suspect that if comics (or whatever we’re calling them by then) ever do rise to the level of respectability of film or literature (in the sense of text-only books), then perpetrators in the medium will do anything they can to distance themselves from comparisons to literature or film. Because comics aren’t there yet though, people seem to think that acceptance and respectability hinges on showing how similar to respectable media comics are. Politics and noise, but what are you gonna do?

  11. This is essentially a semantic argument.

    Exactly what I was thinking. Reminds me of the “what is manga” argument, where you can pull out all sorts of different theories about art form, pacing, style, etc . . . and then turn around and talk about the literal definitions which make the entire debate moot. It’s a matter of personal perception and how each individual perceives what “literature” means to them. :)

    Still, in interesting discussion to read. Arguments and discussions on topics that may seem pointless often bring up very valid and interesting ideas, as well. :)

  12. “Wolk asked Grossman, who had brought some prepared statements, about whether there was anything in the definition of ‘sophistication’ that could be useful to comics.”

    I’d like to ask Wolk if there’s any definition to this question that would make it intelligible.

  13. I must admit, I haven’t got a clue what that means either. Checking dictionary.com, I can’t see any commonly used definition of “sophistication” for which that would be a remotely meaningful question.

  14. I hope a transcript or recording of this panel shows up online. I’d be interested in reading/hearing the whole thing. I think some of the wonkier statements of the article, like the “sophistication” question, might be clearer in the context of the original conversation. Newsarama isn’t really known for its accurate reportage, and some of the participants have already clarified/corrected this report.

  15. First off, Bjork is ALWAYS art


    Secondly, even bad art is art, so why are comics not art? Let’s call it art! It’s not against the law to name anything art, and some schmoe on the street can call his statue made of junk art, then why can’t we call the covers of JSA art? I thought that art is an

    Thirdly, there are some stinker books sitting on a library shelf right now that few people have read and that deserves to be called literature over, say, Watchmen? Please! Yeah, a random issue of X-men may not be spectacular, but not every “legitimate” writer is a John Grisham. They should stop seeing comics as simply kids fare.

  16. I figure it’s more meaningful to be out there telling stories and making art than to talk about whether what you’re doing is art or not.

    Not everyone who talks about comics on the internet is a creator, or wants to be a creator. Talking as if “we” are all artists or writers is silly and condescending. Some of “us” just love comics and like to take them apart to see how they work — not because we think it’s going to save the medium or make comics better; because it’s fun.

    I, for one, like semantic discussions about the Inner Zen of Comics. Like Christopher Moonlight says, if you don’t like it, don’t take part. Shouting down those who do, or making assumptions about them, is rude and unhelpful.

  17. Wolk’s other comment is strange. ~~”the artists can’t create great actors on the page … You’re just reading a script with a bunch of crappy pictures on it – but it’s a great script.”

    He sounds like a Hollywood sycophant. Everything Joss Whedon writes is great. Comic book artists produce “crappy” pictures. Makes me wonder if he ever watched an episode of BUFFY … which would torpedo the assumption that every Hollywood actor is “great.”

    Honestly, why would they schedule a panel for the sole purpose of riling up the fans?

  18. pulphope Says:
    “I hate this kind of high/low argument. I reject it.”

    Ahhhh, pulphope…So, like a famous Mythbuster, you essentially ‘Reject [their] reality and substitute your own”.