I had a discussion with my girlfriend recently about the academic legitimacy of comic books when compared to other finer arts and literature. Let me say that I agree that while graphic novels are part of the collective monomyth and all those Jungian archetypes, they can never hold the true legitimacy of real literature because of the simple fact that they are comics. Comic books often have multiple writers and reboots, with different people establishing different ideas on how they want to see characters. That alone seperates comics into their own separate and distinct universe which allows them establish their own stories that flow with changes in culture. Comics adapt and change with society, and while they provide good mirrors to culture, establishment of canon prevents the vast majority of running superhero comics to be counted as true literature.
Comics can be critiqued through various schools. Wonder Woman has seen her share of feminist theory for sure, but the fact of the matter is that comics are just comics, and despite how people like myself dress them up for academia, they are largely inaccessible save to those who truly know the canon. And yes, there are widely acclaimed graphic novels in the academic community. Persopolis, Maus, and American Born Chinese instantly spring to mind, but these are self-contained personal stories. They could be actual books if their authors had chose to format them that way, but they chose to do them as graphic novels instead.
Comics books and graphic novels are entirely different entities. A graphic novel is exactly what it says it is: A novel with pictures. These can legitimately be called literature. Maus is just as moving as Eli Weisel's Night. However, the vast majority of superhero comics can not be held at that same literary level. It's a sad fact, but it's one we as comic fans have to deal with. The idea of comics studies seems fun, but unfortunately its a field that will never take off. It's an interesting topic, I know, but the very nature of the comic book defies literary criticism.
I write about comics because I enjoy them. I think analyzing the heroic ideals of batman or the meaning of death in comic books is fun. I am aware that I am weird. However, it's very hard to translate comics outside of their perscribed universes. You can compare Superman to Jesus or Hercules, but not to Shakespeare. Nobody in Othello had heat vision, and Romeo and Juliet were not retconned back to life. It's easy for comic fans to see parallels because all of our heroes originate from basic ideas.
Also, superhero comics today are based around canon established decades ago, meaning the writers are generally basing their stories on what they read as a kid. Geoff Johns obviously loves the silver age Justice League because they are all apparently back, and any newer hero is sadly displaced. However, we as comic book readers love when canon ties together (this will come in later). The whole genre is based on appealing to fans and attracting new readers, which is what separates superhero comics from the rest of literature. There is a fan base. It needs to be appeased and new readers need to be brought in to keep DC and Marvel floating. This commercial drive is the wedge that will forever split the mainstream comic book from graphic novels like Maus.
I say this all sadly. I'd love to spend my life writing about comics, but there is very little legitimacy. Comics are fun, but will never be fully accepted. It's something we as fans and readers need to accept, deal with, and then go back to enjoying the best publishers have to offer.
The best, of course, being Grant Morrison (finally on topic now). If there is one man who could bring a shred of academia to the comic community, it's him.
Grant (can I call you Grant?) is intelligent, and his stories play on two levels. At first, they are just exciting and fun and suspenseful, really everything a comic book needs to be enjoyable to read. However, without a decent understanding of gothic art or mythology, a large portion of his Batman and Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne is completely missed. I have so much to say about the honest-to-go masterpiece I finished today. It is, in my opinion, the best series I have ever read. Yes, Geoff Johns, I enjoyed Blackest Night, but Grant brings a hefty weight of actual intellectual content that actually makes comic books seem a bit smarter. Your zombie heroes were cool, but Grant Morrison has a grasp on the English language and culture as a whole that makes him better than really any other comic writer I have ever read.
Morrison does this incredible thing where all of his storylines come crashing together. I find myself rereading him over and over to try and catch all his references not only to other comic books but also to literature, art, and music. I cannot possibly list them all, but they are without question phenomenal. He may know everything, or is consistently on Wikipedia.
Let me give an example of this (spoilers)
Thomas Wayne AKA Dr. Hurt has been repeatedly referred to as the devil. With his mask on his shadow looks like a horned demon. He is the Devil referenced in the title of Knight, the Devil, and Death, which is a famous piece of Gothic art. At one point the Joker gives a brief monologue about a banana, and how it represents the "primal gag": The fall. He then tosses the peel on the ground. Keep this in mind.
At the end of the arc, Hurt is running away from Batman and encounters the Joker. The Joker and Hurt are not on the best of terms. Sitting on a stump, the Joker points to a gun on the ground, and says "Betcha can't reach the gun before me, gambler." Hurt races for the gun, slips on the banana peel and falls, only to be buried alive while the Joker laughs about how his plan went to Hell.
Hurt is very clearly now the Devil. He gambles and falls. The fall refers to the Devil gambling with God and being sent to Hell.
THIS IS BRILLIANT.
It is also only one of the little details that takes many rereads to notice. Anyway, it's late. Sorry about the rant at the beginning, but it's my blog so deal. Grant Morrison, If you ever read this, thank you for an amazing story. You're what's right with comics today.
In summation- If you want an example of a phenomenal superhero comic- this is it. It's canon heavy and Wikipedia will help with a lot, as well as the comicsalliance.com annotations. Without them I would have missed so much. They do great work, and the fact that there is so much information present gives credit to Morrison as a writer. The entire arc is nothing short of brilliant, and the best today's comics have to offer.