Within the comic book industry, there is a small but vocal segment of collectors, artists, and writers who are uncomfortable with the traditional term “comic book.” These dissenters suggest a number of reasons for their desire to find different terminology for what they read, collect, or create. Chief among them being that the work they love is not being afforded the respect they believe it deserves by academia because academics, by definition, find comic books beneath serious study.
The argument apparently goes like this. In academia, comic books are for children, great literature and great art alone merit serious academic study…unless, of course, you are a professor of American Studies, American Culture, or Pop Culture… or are simply slumming. Within that framework, advocates of alternative terms such as “sequential art” and “graphic novel” argue, the work of mere comic book artists and writers will never get the serious attention it deserves.
Leaving aside for a moment the obvious question of why anyone who is not currently taking undergraduate classes would give as rat’s ass what any academic thinks, lets examine the basic argument presented for changing the “aforementioned nomenclature.”
To be fair, there are those who feel that a term like “sequential art” is simply more descriptive of the work they do and encompasses a much wider field of possibilities for what that art can someday become. For them, “comic” and “comic book” are limiting terms – for creators, market forces, and audiences alike. Since the greatest proponent of this term is Will Eisner, it would foolish for anyone, especially me a humble comic book reader, to argue with that assumption. Having said that, it is important to note, however, that for Eisner traditional comic books are simply one of many categories of communicative/narrative/art that can potentially fall under the broad umbrella called sequential art. Hence, even for Eisner, comic books would seem to remain a valid descriptor.
If the traditional comic book can be viewed than as one form of sequential art, and its most recognizable one at that, the question remains: what reason do dissenters possibly have for wanting to change the terminology. As suggested above, there is only one reason… comic books are not taken seriously enough as an art form by critics and academics. And that pains the dissenters.
It is difficult for anyone to have the things they are most passionate about taken lightly. When we are serious about something we want to be taken seriously. Comic books, mystery novels, and movies all lay outside the genres and categories of art traditionally studied in academia. There are film classes and departments at many universities, to be sure, but Shakespeare and Sophocles hold a place that Bergman and John Ford never will. Likewise, mystery writers like Chandler and MacDonald will never be esteemed in the same way as Joyce and Proust.
The obvious question becomes, what difference does it really make? Those of us who love comic books know the fine work of people like Will Eisner and Russ Manning. We know that comic books at their best have the capacity to entertain, delight, and make us think in the same way that any art at its best does. Just as velvet Elvis’s and dogs-playing-poker canvasses do not de-legitimate Michelangelo and Picasso so too adolescent and trite comic books do not de-legitimate what is best about the art form we love.
The problem is not in the term “comic book,” but rather in the quality of many of the books themselves. There is no good reason to take much of what has been and is currently being published seriously. It is simply bad, poorly written, violent, over-sexed, adolescent fantasy. It should be taken just as seriously as movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Porky’s.
Comic books at their best are a great art form. The marriage of good writing and good art allows narrative and entertainment possibilities unattainable in traditional prose or traditional visual art forms. Those of us who are passionate about comic books do not care whether academics take them seriously, we figure that is their loss. It is possible to be just as serious about comic books as about any art form, without taking ourselves or comic books too seriously.