How do you define “literature”?

I had a difficult time coming up with a title for this article. “Bill Maher is a Tool” and “Irrelevant TV host Seeks Attention” seemed too aggressive.

Around the time of Stan Lee’s death Bill Maher made some disparaging remarks about the mans contributions to literary entertainment and popular culture. Recently he doubled down and attacked the people who buy and read comic books, and enjoy the movies they are based on. Stating that comic books were not literature and the people who enjoyed them were eternal children who refused to grow up.

lit·er·a·ture

noun

  • written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.”a great work of literature”
  • books and writings published on a particular subject.”the literature on environmental epidemiology”
  • leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice

It’s obvious Mr. Maher is using the first definition of the word. Because he is a snob. I’m not going to mince words. The man is a snob who thinks his opinion on any given subject is the only one that matters. Just because his only exposure to comics were stories he deemed childish, does not mean they are representative of the art form as a whole. If the only book you ever read was Captain Underpants, you might have a low opinion of written fiction.

The simple fact is, all art has an intended audience. Just because I don’t like most Country Western music, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that the people who do like it should be disparaged, it just means I don’t like it. I’m not Garth Brooks intended audience. But even within genres, you can like or dislike a specific work without needing to put down the people who do enjoy it. I love Fantasy novels, but have never been able to make it all the way through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and despite the awards it has won, I hated The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The Twilight Saga has sold over 100 million copies, but I personally have a very low opinion of them (I couldn’t make it past the first book, sorry Twilight fans), but again, just because I didn’t like a thing, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of the praise others have lavished on it.

Maher isn’t alone in his opinion of comic books, I’ve heard many other people express the opinion that comic books are for children. The Walking Dead is not for children. Preacher is not for children. Transmetropolitan is not for children. Sex Criminals is not for children. Saga is not for children. Y – The Last Man is not for children. I could go on listing independent books with mature themes, but they aren’t really what people think about when you say “comic books” are they?

When someone mentions comic books, the first thing to come to most people’s minds is Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the books from the big two publishers of Marvel and DC. Even there though, just because the majority of the storylines are skewed towards a younger demographic, doesn’t mean the writers won’t tackle important themes. “Demon in a Bottle” was a storyline about Tony Stark’s battle with alcoholism. “One More Day” is about Peter Parker struggling to save his Aunt Mays life, and sacrificing his marriage to do so. The Avengers have tackled domestic violence within their own group and Green Arrows sidekick Speedy became a heroin addict . Maus is a Pulitzer winning series about survivors of the Holocaust., and if Michael Straczynski’s Stand Tall (Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 #36) doesn’t bring you to tears, your heart must be made of stone. These are not childish stories and are subjects that are not often part of popular novels that sell millions of copies.

Real literature has words, not pictures. Maher and others will contend. Go read Sandman: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman is my reply. Even just Tales of the Black Freighter, a book within a book inside Watchmen, has beautifully written prose. The truth is though, comics and graphic novels are a collaboration between a writer and an author. While a book like The Name of the Wind relies on Patrick Rothfus’ amazing skill with words to paint images in the readers mind, comic artists use just as much talent to draw them with pencil and ink.

My two favourite issues of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run on Hawkeye have almost no dialog. Issue 11 is from the point of view of a dog and issue 19, where Clint suffers hearing damage, is told mostly with pantomime and American Sign Language, but Aja’s minimalist art style is more descriptive and evocative than any of the Cormac McCarthy novels I’ve read.

So, again, what makes something “literature”? Does it have to be long? Comic books are usually only between 22 and 28 pages after all, but Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, considered to be among the greatest novels ever written, we’re all originally published as serials.

Comic books are not novels, they are not plays, they are a unique blending of two dimensional art and words to tell a story. To simply dismiss the art form as “for children” is to be ignorant at best and en elitist snob at worst. Judging an entire story telling medium on what sells most, would be like me saying “Books are stupid, because Fifty Shades of Grey is just porn without pictures.”

Not every TV show is The West Wing. Not every movie is Citizen Kane, Not every book is To Kill A Mockingbird and they shouldn’t be. It would be a sad, boring world if everyone watched, listened to and read the same things.

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