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Strauss's avatar

Would you consider a "graphic novel" to be literature?

Asked by Strauss (21482points) January 6th, 2010

The other night as I was watching (again) the film “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, I was noticing (not for the first time) how the “look” of the production reflected the fact that the film was an adaptation of a graphic novel. The Wikipedia article lists the graphic novel, along with the comic book, under the heading “other narrative forms”. Although I have seen many such graphic novels that I would consider to be very creative and artistic, I’m not sure that I would necessarily consider it to be literature. What say you, collective?

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52 Answers

Darwin's avatar

Some of them are literature, some of them are good reads, and some of them aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.

TexasDude's avatar

If a comic has themes, literary devices, and at least some artistic merit, I’d consider it literature.

Spinel's avatar

“Narrative” is a an ambiguous, umbrella term. What I consider literature has quality content which makes up the bulk, that includes artistry, a core theme, along with literary devices etc. Not all comics make it based on my terms.

Jeruba's avatar

Not I. Literature is, above all, words.

warribbons's avatar

apparently “Watchmen” is a great piece of literature – deep on many levels?- but when i tried to read it, i just didn’t enjoy it.

graphic novels feel like a blend of art and literature, best of both worlds

but to answer your question: yes graphic novels imo can be considered as literature, as @Jeruba said.

absalom's avatar

No, not literature.

Supplementary illustrations are one thing; complementary illustrations (as in comics) mark a different medium.

Darwin's avatar

If blank verse can be considered poetry, then some examples of graphic novel can be considered literature.

An example:

———- My lord?

———————- A grave.

—————————— He shall not live.

———————————————- Enough.

(King John, 3.3, William Shakespeare)

Nullo's avatar

@warribbons
Not being liked is a classic trait of good literature :D

I would agree with absalom, and add that reading is an active process (books and the like are dubbed “hot media” in communication theory), while looking at pictures—even pictures that tell the story— is passive.

Jeruba's avatar

@warribbons, ?? I said no.

dpworkin's avatar

@Jeruba Have you never read Maus? I defy anyone to show how Maus is not literature.

SeventhSense's avatar

God they call children books like Harry Potter literature nowadays but it’s mostly all just comic books. The exception in my opinion might be something like Stephen King’s Dark Tower.

Haleth's avatar

The Sandman series is a great example of a graphic novel that is literature. Neil Gaiman’s writing for Sandman is deeply human even though it deals with themes like religion and eternity. It just has the bonus of collaboration with amazing artists like Dave McKean.

MagsRags's avatar

@pdworkin, I totally agree that Maus is literature. Very haunting. The other graphic novel that comes to mind is Persepolis – it’s an autobiography about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. It was later made into a movie.

dpworkin's avatar

@MagsRags These old definitional prejudices will die. There are still some pompous stuffed shirts who will refuse to call something literature if it is accompanied by drawings, unless the author is Jane Austen and the drawings were published in the 19th Century.

Meanwhile, I could see how Maus could outlive Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger.

absalom's avatar

@pdworkin

That almost stings.

Graphic novels are blends of two media, and they retain qualities of both. Yes, they are pictorial. Yes, they are literary. But they aren’t pictures alone and they aren’t literature alone.

IMNSH English major’s O.

dpworkin's avatar

i love jane austen and i try to read her entire ouvre once a year (ecepting northanger abbey, which irks me a bit.)

absalom's avatar

I’m not a fan. Maybe I’d be more inclined to read JA if Art Spiegelman drew accompanying comic images for her oeuvre.

Haleth's avatar

@MagsRags @pdworkin Ooh, Maus and Perseopolis are wonderful!

I think the reason most people still don’t see graphic novels as literature is because we tend to lump graphic novels with comics and manga. Graphic novels are also kind of a subcultural thing- most of the people I know who like them are nerdy art kids. :) Graphic novels are their own form, and great writing can only benefit from great art. Video art strikes me as a pretty good parallel. For a while it wasn’t really seen as art, and now it’s seen as pushing the boundaries of what art is. Graphic novels push the boundaries of what literature is.

Another really good one I wanted to point out is “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”::http://www.amazon.com/Amazing-Adventures-Kavalier-Clay/dp/0312282990
It’s a story about a guy who inherits an obsession with an obscure comic superhero called “The Escapist” from his dad, along with an entire collection of Escapist stuff. He uses all his money to buy the rights to the character and gets two of his friends together to make a new, darker spin on the comics. It’s a rare light-hearted take on the artistic process, and the the characters are well-written and have great chemistry together.

Ben Templesmith is also really worth checking out. He made 30 days of night and Wormwood Gentleman Corpse. He’s more of a visual artist than a writer- some of the writing in Wormwood is cliched, and he did it all himself- but that’s why this genre is so great for collaboration. His art is pretty dark and innovative.

drdoombot's avatar

I think the term “literature” is often misused and/or misunderstood. My bachelor’s degree is in English Lit and I’m come to understand “literary” as a term applied to a work with complex themes, characterization and message, presented in a deliberate (sometimes “artistic”) style. Plot is usually, though not always, secondary. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, though fun, is not literature; Frankenstein is. Conan the Barbarian is not literature, A Clockwork Orange is. Paradise Lost is definitely literature, Twilight is not. I can go on and on.

Now, according to my criteria, there are graphic novels that can be considered literature. Watchmen, though I’m not crazy about it, is definitely literature. It is perhaps the most painstakingly crafted comic ever. The character design, the panel layout, the symbolism in the artwork, the themes and even the color palette were all very deliberately designed to make a complex, thoughtful work. The same can be said for the phenomenal Maus (which won a Pulitzer Prize). Reading graphic novels like these require a sharp eye and a level of discernment similar to what a reader would put into understanding a literary work.

Comics get a bad rap from people who still think of comics the way they were decades ago; they think of comics as a variation on illustrated children’s books with slightly more pictures and less words. Comics have grown up, and few people have noticed. This outdated view of comics, ironically enough, is the fault of the two major comic publishers, Marvel and DC. Based on the success of the “graphic novels” of the mid-to-late 1980’s, with their adult themes and literary merit, the big two wanted to cash in and started packaging their monthlies in a thicker paperback and calling them graphic novels (the term should have been reserved for the more serious stuff). They diluted the market and the casual consumer can’t tell the difference between the pulp and the stuff worthy of merit. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of the pulpy monthly books like Spider-man and Superman, but they are definitely not literature. The OP mentioned The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as an inspiration for this question, but I wouldn’t consider the graphic novel literature. A fun read, but missing that gene se qua of true graphic novel literature. Here’s a short list of some works in the comic medium I consider “literature” (and I’m excluding lots of books that are great fun, artistic, creative and entertaining, but aren’t “literary”):

Watchmen
Maus
V for Vendetta
The Sandman
Pride of Baghdad
Transmetropolitan
Locke & Key
The Invisibles
The Path
Pax Romana
The Walking Dead (this one’s on the edge between genre pulp and literary)
Y: The Last Man (like the above, I almost didn’t include it on this list)

I heartily encourage anyone who has doubts about graphic novels being considered “literature” to look over the books on the above list (particularly the first five or six) and try to explain to me how these works don’t accomplish the same thing traditional literature does.

belakyre's avatar

Watchmen was definitely literature, pretty well written as well. Besides, “graphic novel” has the word “novel” in it.

MrBr00ks's avatar

I do believe that graphic novels are literature. I think that the University of Florida does as well: http://www.english.ufl.edu/comics/

When a university’s respected English department devotes graduate tracks to a field, it must be a part of the discussion at least.

Staalesen's avatar

I do belive so, some good examples have already been listed, like MAUS, and Persepolis,

There are differences between literature and GOOD literature, thou…

Pandora's avatar

For me it is all about the style of writting. Authors I tend to love are the ones who can convey emotion the best and describe enviroment to the point where you feel you are there.
To me that is literature. It should have the ability to transport you into that world. If it can’t then its not worth the paper it is written on.

filmfann's avatar

It depends on the work.

Definitely literature:
Maus
The Dark Knight Returns
V for Vendetta
The Road To Perdition

Not literature, but definitely Graphic Novels:
Sin City
300
Watchmen

babyblue's avatar

Got words….good story and you can get lost in it, it’s literature.

SeventhSense's avatar

I stand corrected in my assumptions I guess but I still can’t see the graphic novel in the canon of fine literature. Although in his day the works of Shakespeare were entertaining and quite fun but he wasn’t regarded in his esteem until a couple of centuries later. So who knows.

drdoombot's avatar

@phoenyx I knew it looked wrong, but it was really late at night.

Jeruba's avatar

To say that a work is not literature is not to say that it is lacking in quality. It is only to say that it fails to meet the criteria that define literature, which are, first of all, writing. There is also a certain amount of subjectivity in those criteria; there is a large body of writing that would be called literature by some and not by others, but first it must meet the test of being a written work.

Opera is an art form that combines a libretto or book (written content) with music and the theatrical arts. No matter how fine an opera might be, I would not call it literature because its form does not appeal to that standard. Is the libretto alone a literary work? That’s a different question. A literary work set to music does not stop being literary.

If you extract the written content from a graphic novel, does it stand on its own? Can you read it and comprehend it as a written work without the illustrations? If so, then it qualifies as a candidate for the label “literature” and is fit to be judged accordingly.

I haven’t seen Maus,, but I’ve read several volumes of Sandman. It is very well written, but I would not call it literature. If you would, well, that’s subjectivity for you.

warribbons's avatar

@Jeruba OH SHIT LOL

well i just read “Literature is, above all, words”

graphic novels have words

drdoombot's avatar

@Jeruba In the graphic novels that could be considered literature (e.g. Watchmen), you would greatly neuter the strength of the writing by extracting it or separating it from the illustration. In nearly every case, the writer gave specific instructions to the artist on how to portray characters and scenes, what symbols and motifs to include, etc. Comics are frequently compared to movies and it’s an apt comparison; a comic book writer is both a writer and a director, with the artist expressing the vision of the director the way actors, sets, costumes and special effects do.

If you could extract the script from a movie and call it “literature” (imagine doing that to The Godfather, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane), then you could do it with a comic book script as well. However, I doubt there are many movie scripts that can rival the power and impact of their visual interpretations.

Also, your example of the opera is not exactly a fair comparison because even though the opera contains words, the audience is not reading the words, they are hearing them. The same goes for movies. Comic books are unique in their proximity to traditional literature because the words are actually read on a page by the audience.

Interestingly, Wikipedia lists “graphic novels/comic books” as a literary genre and there are mention of other names for the artform: comic-strip novel, illustrated novel, picture novella, etc. Include the original terms: comic book and graphic novel and you see that even the names used for the artform refer back to traditional literature. Not all novels are “literature,” but some are. Wouldn’t that allow for some graphic novels to be “literature” as well?

absalom's avatar

@drdoombot

But to extract the script from a film – and I have tons of scripts downloaded on my hard drive right now; sometimes I read them, but they’re terribly boring without the accompanying images (much like graphic novels) – to extract the script is to change the medium. You’re reading a script. It’s no longer film.

Extracting the words from a graphic novel does the same thing. It’s not a graphic novel if you’re just looking at its words. If you have to parse one medium from another in order to apply the term literature, than the original creation obviously isn’t literature. Right?

dpworkin's avatar

Oh, who cares?

SeventhSense's avatar

@pdworkin
NOOOOOOOO!~!!!!! The fate of the Western world hinges upon the answerr!!!!

dpworkin's avatar

We have beaten this horse to death. Some people are never going to accept a graphic novel as literature, because they have definitional reasons not subject to ratiocination. Lets call it Pflurgature, and we can all be happy.

jangles's avatar

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a terrible cinematic adaptation, of a classic Alan Moore graphic novel.

Literature is the art of written works. Graphic novels and comic books present stories told in a combination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text. A graphic novel or a comic book is simply another kind of narrative form of literature, along with films.

This isnt an opinion. Sorry.

dpworkin's avatar

It isn’t an opinion? Was it handed to you on Sinai in the form of tablets?

jangles's avatar

Nope, i did not say whether it was a correct fact, i only stated that what is defined as literature is not ones opinion.

Darwin's avatar

@jangles is right about one thing: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a terrible cinematic adaptation.

And some graphic novels are literature.

MagsRags's avatar

@Darwin that’s two things

drdoombot's avatar

@pdworkin What @jangles wrote matches up pretty accurately with the Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia is not the definitive word on any subject, but it’s a starting point.

@absalom But the point I was making is that you can’t extract words from a movie or comic book and expect it to be a great work of art. It is art in the form it’s in (and in the case of graphic novels, literature).

Darwin's avatar

@MagsRags – Hey! I’m a dog. It’s enough that I know how to type. I don’t need to be good at math, too!

jangles's avatar

@drdoombot
I know, I did look it up on Wikipedia. (it said in the question info, that he looked it up and i personally wanted to see what it said.) I was clarifying what Wikipedia meant when it said “other narrative forms” What it meant was other narrative forms of literature. Which I believe led to the question being asked in the first place. (Being that because the QA didn’t understand the Wikipedia page and thought that somehow there was actual skepticism behind graphic novels being literature)

jangles's avatar

Re-reading the question however, I see that the QA did understand the Wikipedia page. If I’m reading it correctly now, it seems he was originally skeptic of graphic novels being literature. My clarification was a misunderstanding, I apologize.

Strauss's avatar

@Darwin but you still gotta love roger Moore in whatever he does!~

Darwin's avatar

@Yetanotheruser – Roger Moore? Only when he was The Saint.

filmfann's avatar

Roger Moore?

WORST JAMES BOND EVER ! ! !

Darwin's avatar

Roger Moore was too effete to be the real James Bond. Sean Connery for me is still the only real Bond, James Bond. Moore’s stints as James Bond were amusing, but they weren’t the real 007.

Moore was just enough of an apparent lightweight to work well as The Saint, since Simon Templar publicly played an upper class twit, but privately played a smooth and polished hero.

Strauss's avatar

oops!!!! Big Mistake! I meant to say Sean Connery Sean Connery! Sean Connery! It was late in the evening or early in the morning. I can hardly remember making that post! I am embarrassed and blushing!
I agree about Connery’s Bond, and almost anything else he does. I agree with both @Darwin and @filmfann about Roger Moore. The Saint was alright, mildly entertaining, but I see Sean Connery as a great actor!

filmfann's avatar

@Yetanotheruser You meant Sean Connery, and said Roger Moore?
And to think I had such respect for you!

Strauss's avatar

(still blushing) AAAArrrrrgh! I must have gotten my tongue caught on my eye teeth and couldn’t see what I was saying!

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