Graphic Novels: Are They Literature or Art?

On Scott McCloud: I take seriously his assertion that the content of a graphic novel can directly influence the ways in which we read it. A lengthy, drawn-out panel can influence the perception of time and a rough sketch can indicate the ruggedness of an action. Reading Nat Turner, the coarse, crude drawings were emblematic of the grittiness of the subject matter. I got that. I just don’t get how this makes it literature.

On the coattails of our discussion regarding video games, I think my reaction toward graphic novels is very much the same. My fascination with games, beyond my anal-retentive min-maxing of character attributes to break the algorithm of every game I can—this so-called “theorycrafting”—is in regard to their textual/expressive potential. Yet even despite how much I agree with Gee’s assertions that player choice in Deus Ex can “mean something,” I hesitate to call JC Denton’s disposition toward multinational corporate corruption and government conspiracy “literature” … or my process of annihilating it as literary.

I respect Baker’s Nat Turner and very much enjoyed reading it, as much as one can enjoy 200 pages of massacre. It was a quick read, and I found many of its moments quite powerful. Yet I feel literature must be read, imagined, and interpreted. You can interpret a painting, of course. But a painting is art. And art is not necessarily literature (though the written word can certainly be considered artistic). After all, when the words “run” and “boom” compose of 50% of the words embedded within the story’s frames (aside from the excerpts), there’s much to question whether a graphic novel—at least in Nat Turner’s case—is read or, perhaps better put: viewed.

I think there’s additionally plenty to be said that Scott McCloud directly compares comic books and graphic novels not to literary giants like William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser but visual expressionists like Van Gogh and Munch (which he transposes himself within at one stage of the piece). Perhaps this is a point that does not need to be made; this is an argument I’m not sure anyone ever even said. I think the visual rhetoric of a piece like Nat Turner is certainly something worth examining, but like the idea of actually teaching a video game in a classroom, I think there is more to learn from Nat Turner than there is to learn about it (not that I have anything against teaching it or video games in the classroom necessarily).

2 thoughts on “Graphic Novels: Are They Literature or Art?

  1. Professor Sample

    This is the second time this week (so far) that the question of the literary status of graphic novels has come up on the blog. I’d like to suggest that the question of whether X, Y, or Z is literature and the similar question of whether X, Y, or Z is art is simply the wrong question to ask. And the reason is this: people can’t even decide what counts as literature and what counts as art in the first place.

    Neither “literature” nor “art” have any stable meaning in contemporary culture, and they haven’t for a long time. The whole art history of the 20th century is a debate about what counts as art. As artists like Duchamp have shown, how something becomes art is as much a matter as context as it is any intrinsic characteristic of the work itself. The same thing goes for literature.

    In another comment I gave my definition of literature, and I’ll repeat it again: something is literary when it calls attention to language, expression, and meaning-making. There’s nothing about words, length, style in this definition. There’s also nothing about cultural value or prestige in this definition. Those are entirely separate factors, in my mind, and, like ideas of what counts as literature or art, they change over time as well.

  2. Alex Glass Post author

    Well, I meant no disrespect to Nat Turner in asking the question. The reason I called into question the boundaries between art and literature is because the medium of graphic novels seems to fly in the face of convention; it’s something I’m definitely grappling with.

    And I agree that what is perceived as “literature” can change over time.

    Mark Twain’s travelogues were considered “popular culture” pieces during his time. People read them to be entertained. Today they’re still entertaining, but are additionally seen as intelligent works of satire that work to overturn conventions of the Western travel narrative–a genre that both created and sustained xenophobic misconceptions of Asian and Middle Eastern culture.

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