Over the past century, comics have been in and out of societal favor. Now enjoying a renaissance—in movie theaters, bookstores, and even classrooms—comics are gaining back some respect.
Behold the power of the humble comic: From cave drawings that offer clues to millennia-old mysteries to political sketches that helped sow the seeds of the American Revolution to summer blockbusters that have banked billions, comics have been part of a human narrative that’s spanned 40,000 years. What other communications medium can claim such a storied history?
Detractors may dismiss comics as inconsequential entertainment, but the medium also has given us serious works that explore war and peace, religion and politics, good and evil—and comics creators have won such prestigious acclaim as the Pulitzer Prize and Guggenheim Fellowships, among others.
“There seems to be a special place for static images in our minds. They have a symbolic power that moving images maybe don’t have. This makes some of the storytelling in comics more haunting,” says Scott McCloud, author of the seminal 1993 book Understanding Comics, and keynote speaker at the Visual Learning: Transforming the Liberal Arts conference held at Carleton in September. (McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”—not to be confused with single-panel works such as “The Far Side,” which McCloud says are more properly termed cartoons.)
“After I read Scott’s book, I became interested in comics and the visual narrative power the medium holds,” says Susan Jaret McKinstry, Carleton’s Helen F. Lewis Professor of English. In 2003 she began incorporating graphic novels (which McCloud calls “comics with a spine”) into her “Narrative Theory” course, much to the delight of many Carleton students. In her “Victorian Novel” course, McKinstry also looked at comic versions of novels written by Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Brontë.
Stamped now with the academic seal of approval and grist for major conferences at preeminent universities around the world, comics didn’t always enjoy such respectability. While comics were immediately popular with America’s kids, not everyone else was amused when the genre burst onto the scene in the 1930s.
When every kid had a comic book
Although the American comics tradition stretches back to pre-revolution days—Benjamin Franklin and others understood that deft political sketches could stir people to action—it was the 1930s through early 1950s (now regarded as the Golden Age of Comics) when the art form came into its own. Superman, the world’s first superhero, debuted in 1938 and the medium snowballed from there.
By the mid-1940s, according to a 1944 study by University of Pittsburgh professor W. W. D. Sones, an estimated 95 percent of 8- to 14-year-olds, and 65 percent of 15- to 18-year olds were reading sci-fi, horror, mystery, and superhero comics. Comic books were not limited to children; a study by the Market Research Company of America revealed that 41 percent of men and 28 percent of women aged 18 to 30 were reading them regularly. Sales also were robust among members of the armed forces serving in World War II.
But as the 1950s rolled in, family-oriented communities turned to a new medium. Televisions became common fixtures in American households and parents looked on with approval as their kids befriended the wholesome Kitten and Bud on Father Knows Best and Wally and the Beav on Leave it to Beaver. Still, those same kids often could be found under the covers with a flashlight at night, soaking up the lurid exploits of comic-book characters like the knife-wielding Ripper and gun-toting Frisco Mary.
As it turned out, Congress didn’t care at all for either the Ripper or Frisco Mary.
Seriously. There were Congressional hearings.
After recognizing that comic books motivated some kids to read, teachers had begun bringing comics into their classrooms, but Congress took aim at what it saw as a sensational, tasteless, and even dangerous medium. During the 1954 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency hearings (also called the comic book hearings), the senators heard testimony that comic books promoted everything from violence and homosexuality to rebelliousness and illiteracy. Committee members concluded that comic books were bad for children. Once comics fell out of favor, teachers were reluctant to use them as teaching tools, and it took 25 years for educators to reintroduce comics into the curriculum.
“After the hearings, comics were self-censored,” says McCloud. “The industry adopted a set of standards that pretty much kept comics juvenile and brain-dead, right up to the 1980s.”
Ruled by that set of standards—referred to as the Comics Code Authority (CCA)—the industry began publishing cuddly fare with kid-friendly characters: Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Mickey Mouse dominated the best-selling lists of the 1960s. But the pull of those pre-hearings days, when comic book covers dripped with the blood of severed heads, seemed somehow irresistible in the 1970s. While the bloody heads were gone, characters like Spiderman and Aquaman regained popularity and began moving into darker territory, grappling with personal tragedies as often as they slapped down villains.
Reflecting the social changes rippling through America at the time, comic books began touting storylines about social justice, racial equality, and feminism. Lois Lane, aided by a Superman trick, became black for a day to get the inside story on Metropolis’s “Little Africa,” Iron Man battled not just Doctor Doom, but his own alcoholism, and the Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, became a heroin addict.
Finally. Comics get some respect.
By the 1980s, the Comics Code was losing its grip. More and more publishers went to print without seeking the CCA stamp of approval and, as the self-censoring body became increasingly irrelevant, comics artists flexed their muscles, exploring alternative territory. While superheroes remained—as they always will—an industry mainstay, thoughtful, sometimes wrenching new works began to appear.
Raw, an anthology devoted to the alternative comics movement that had developed in response to the CCA, published the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1992)—and nothing could have draped the medium with a cloak of respectability more effectively. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the story of his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor, was a critical darling that drew a whole new audience to comics. Together with Watchmen, another critically acclaimed series that won a 1988 Hugo Award, Maus helped set a new standard for quality work in the industry.
“By the late ’90s and early ’00s,” says McCloud, “there was a critical mass of well-written, well-drawn comics, and formally innovative work began to really take off. That’s the era we’ve been in ever since.”
With Pulitzers, Hugos, and plenty of favorable press, comics were suddenly getting nothing but respect. In 2000, a column in the online Comics Reporter summarized a widely held sentiment that “comics is a vastly underappreciated art form, capable of the same searing insights, the same expressions of inner truth available to artists in every other media. Comics is the great, warm whisper of the American cultural subconscious.” Once again, teachers took notice and the revolving door of history led the art form back into the classroom, where instructors now use them to motivate, inspire creative storytelling, and aid students who are learning to speak and read English.
These days, the publishers of comics welcome storylines about everything from favorite superheroes to people with Crohn’s disease. Veterans have used comics to tell war stories and, as McCloud adds, “not only has there been a first but there’s been a second annual conference on Comics and Medicine.” (The Comics and Medicine conferences focus on topics such as the use of comics in patient care and medical education, and the ethical implications of using comics to educate the public.)
Truth is, comics have come full circle. Today they’re being used to illustrate airplane safety procedures and to show people how to use Google Chrome, they’re teaching Carleton students about the power of visual narrative, explaining the tenets of Islam, and showing DIYers how to assemble furniture from Ikea. Yet, as integrated into the world as comics are, one important question remains: Can comics make a successful transition to the web?
“What’s happening, aesthetically, in digital publication is unique to comics,” says McCloud. “You can play Citizen Kane on an iPhone and, okay, it’s a reduced experience, but you still get the entirety of the work. It’s still a movie, still the same art form. Comics are different.”
The comics art form is all about the composition of the panel, the arrangement of multiple panels on a page, the unspoken (unwritten) thoughts and messages that lie, sequentially, between the panels, says McCloud. “When you chop that up, when you force readers to zoom in and out on tiny screens, you’ve changed the nature of the form in a fundamental way. So our challenge is to figure out how to make the transition to the [computer or tablet] screen, without screwing up the art form.”
Still, McCloud doesn’t let such concerns stand in his way. He’s currently working on a 400-plus-page printed graphic novel that’s “a romance at heart, about creativity and drive and death.” And, despite his concerns about how best to adapt the genre to an online environment, McCloud’s still an optimist.
“The important thing to understand about comics,” he says, “is that it’s an art form like any other. Some are simple, some are complicated, and they aren’t all about superheroes or funny animals. Comics are growing in many directions, more ambitiously and more varied than ever. They have finally begun to embrace their promise. I’m hopeful for the art form, hopeful for the people who work within it, and hopeful for the people who read it.”
Jacob Canfield '12
Jacob Canfield ’12 takes his comics seriously. As a Carleton sophomore, he was the first person to step up when a call went out from Scott Donaldson ’10 looking for students to create a comics journal. With Donaldson, he cofounded the Carleton Comics Journal (now the Carleton Graphic) in 2009, and served as one of the journal’s editors—along with Kailyn Kent ’11, Andreas Stoehr ’11, Megan Dolezal ’13 (Minneapolis), and Jon Kittaka ’13 (Chicago)—until he graduated in 2012.
Open to all Carleton students, alumni, and staff members, the small journal quickly developed a following. In 2010 the Carleton Student Association approved funding for the journal, which helped grow its size and frequency. During the 2011–12 academic year, the Graphic team published 30- to 50-page issues approximately every two weeks.
“A lot of art schools have comics publications,” Canfield says, “but among liberal arts schools, where not everyone is studying art, the Graphic is unique.” He passed the mantle to Dolezal, Kittaka, Eric Meehle ’14 (Kaukauna, Wis.), and Sarah Skinner ’15 (St. Louis Park, Minn.), who will oversee the publication during the 2012–13 school year.
Canfield knows that a career in comics will be tough, but he believes it’s an attainable dream. “My short-term goal is to be employed full-time and make comics on the side. I’d like to work with smaller publishers so I can retain control over my own creations,” says Canfield, who spent the past three summers honing his drawing skills as a caricature artist at St. Paul’s Como Park Zoo. “But now, it’s time to start building a portfolio. I want to get my work into one of those small presses.” —B.K.
As part of his comps project, Canfield created a comic strip about an art student who suddenly goes blind due to a bizarre mutation that causes crystals to grow from her eye sockets. “Her story let me examine human relationships and the way that people make art,” says Canfield.
Carl Nelson '07
“I had a friend who once told me, ‘I don’t like reading comics,’ ” says Carl Nelson ’07, artist, illustrator, and creator of comics. “Although I understand that other people don’t share my interests, it’s difficult to imagine my life without the role of drawing and picture-making.”
For Nelson, drawing has been a conduit to the world since childhood: He learns best visually. But it was at Carleton that he discovered that his drawing was what made him special. “I wasn’t an academic superstar,” he acknowledges, “and I realized I could draw as a career.”
During his four years at Carleton, where he majored in studio art, he drew a regular strip for the Carletonian, which helped launch his career as a freelance illustrator. Today, about one-third of his work is in comics. He augments his drawing with a part-time gig at the Comic Stop, a Seattle comics store.
“Comics are a compelling medium,” he says. “You can create your own world and fill it with any kind of characters you can imagine.” —B.K.
Essential Comics Reading List
- Fun Home, Alison Bechdel. An excellent memoir
- Ghost World, Daniel Clowes. A quirky coming-of-age story
- From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. A dense, ambitious piece of historical fiction set in Victorian England
- Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. A modernist superhero story and a compelling work of literature in its own right
- Scott Pilgrim, a series, Bryan Lee O’Malley. Extremely hip, inventive, and young, this comic brought many new readers to the genre with a blend of Gothic romance and video game aesthetic
- American Splendor, a series, Harvey Pekar. An excellent nonfiction memoir chronicling the trials and tribulations of ordinary life
- Palestine, Joe Sacco. One of genre’s first and finest works of nonfiction journalism
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman. A Pulitzer Prize–winning Holocaust memoir
- Blankets, Craig Thompson. A beautifully drawn first-love memoir
- Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware. A story about three generations of men living in Chicago, told with unique formal complexity
—Compiled by Carl Nelson ’07
Kailyn Kent ’11
When Kailyn Kent ’11 first arrived at Carleton, she planned to work in the primate research lab. Instead, “I discovered that I would rather explore human behavior through storytelling,” she says, “and I decided to go back to comics.”
Kent has been interested in comics as far back as she can remember, and she says Japanese comics, or manga, were her gateway into the art form. At Carleton, she took Susan Jaret McKinstry’s “Narrative Theory” course, and appreciated McKinstry’s and other professors’ encouragement as she explored the comics medium.
As an incoming junior, Kent interned with Marvel Comics in New York. Following graduation, Kent headed back to New York, where she is working as a freelance illustrator and screenwriter. Kent has her résumé—presented in comics format—at the ready. “I sent my résumé off for a job and the company’s CEO ended up commissioning me to make a comics version of his résumé,” she says. “Maybe there’s a market for that!” —B.K.