Most students have at least skimmed one of Shakespeare’s plays. Of those who have read his work, some can probably recite a couple of his legendary lines. But there’s a much greater chance they know the following mainstream proverb: “With great power comes great responsibility.” As Curtis Sullivan, owner of local comic book store Vault of Midnight, said, “Everybody’s a geek in some way, and they don’t even know.”
Sullivan and others recognize that comic books have traditionally been seen as a less high-brow form of art. But critical views of this medium have changed over the years. Take “Watchmen” for example. In 2005, Time magazine included Alan Moore’s magnum opus on its list of the 100 Best Novels since 1923, when the magazine was first published. Or what about the numerous film adaptions of “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man”? Comic books have indeed become a powerful and even ubiquitous force in the media.
However, the debate continues concerning their place in academics and culture. Sullivan argues that comic books are for everybody.
“I’m constantly amazed,” he said, discussing the demographics of his store’s fan base. “We have neurosurgeons who have been buying comics from us for 10 years, college professors, school librarians — it’s just all over the map.”
“And I think … geek culture is almost mainstream,” he added. “Pretty soon there won’t be a geek culture.”
But can a “graphic novel” be considered a book? To attempt to settle this question, Eric Rabkin, a longtime professor who teaches a course on graphic narrative at the University, shed some light on a genre that he has defended and loved for many years.
“I think that ‘Watchmen’ is a different kind — and that’s what the word genre means — a different kind of work than a text-only novel,” Rabkin said.
“When people say that (‘Watchmen’) shouldn’t be considered one of the 100 best books of the year, or of all time, what they’re really saying is, ‘It’s not a book,’ ” Rabkin said. “The fight there is about whether or not a given work can be a part of a given genre.”
Comic books provide a different experience from the standard novel, but their ability to tell a story shouldn’t be considered less worthy than that of the novel. Rabkin believes that language is not what we read in words and letters, that those are merely a representation of language. In his view, language exists in our social relations, in the things we do every day with each other.
Therefore, Rabkin thinks it would be incorrect to think of a comic book as a book with pictures. That would imply that the narrative could survive without its graphic aspect, its language. But the narrative of comic books is entirely reliant on their visual nature, he said. As opposed to illustrations, which are unnecessary to the storytelling, comic book visuals actually form the narrative.
“If (the pictures) were missing, you wouldn’t have a story. When that’s the case, this is what you call visuals,” Rabkin said.
Rabkin’s students learn that distinction in his English 418 “Graphic Narrative” class.
“I think that you need to learn the language of comics,” Rabkin said. “I want my students to be able to write essay(s) that exploit the possibilities of having visual information in the overall argument that they’d developed.”
His students use visuals as an integral part of their creative storytelling and their essays as well. If you can tell it, he thinks that you might as well show it, too.
Sullivan, too, believes in the importance of graphic narrative. He sees potential in the combination of words and visuals, which allow the storyteller to do things that otherwise might be impossible.
“It’s not pictures plus words,” Sullivan said. “It’s a new thing. It’s one plus one is three.”
But there are those who disagree. Though she doesn’t claim to be an expert in comic books, LSA sophomore Janet Hu, the vice president of the Undergraduate English Association, believes that visuals should not be used in academic essays.
“I don’t necessarily think that comic book graphics are necessary in a text,” she said. “I think they can help aid, but sometimes, when it comes to literature, I think the words should evoke an image.”
Again, the issue of genre arose. That’s not to say Hu thinks comics are unworthy of respect; she just believes visuals would only be appropriate for academic writing in classes like Rabkin’s graphic narrative course. But like Rabkin and Sullivan, she asserts that the popularity of comic books in mainstream culture is undeniable, and that it’s certainly a worthy medium.
There are numerous independent comic books stocked at Vault of Midnight that originate in the Ann Arbor area. Sullivan claimed these independent series sell often, and he noted that one locally produced comic in particular called “Nate the Nonconformist,” is one of his favorites.
“The artistic community is generally going full-tilt,” Sullivan said. “We sell five to 10 different books that are all locally written or drawn.”
Inside Sullivan’s store is a towering collection of comic books, games and toys: a testament to the owner’s passion for “geek” culture. And, of course, everyone is welcome to have a taste.
To some people like Rabkin, comic books have certainly penetrated our culture and have even gained prestige in academic circles. To others like Hu, its place in culture and academics is less clear. In a few more years, who knows where comic books will be?
“Anybody who’s not paying attention is really going to miss the boat,” Sullivan said. “They’ll be like those people who said the Internet will never catch on. Don’t fall asleep on a medium that’s been kicking ass for 100 years in America.”