When approaching the subject of graphic novels (or more colloquially known as “comic books”), one often infers that their sole purpose is the mindless entertainment of youths with little to no literary or artistic merit. There are many reasons that this stereotype of graphic novels exists, and one of them pertains to the idea that graphic novels are solely for children and teens. This idea is both untrue and invalid.
What makes something “young adult” literature? Many scholars would argue that the “young adult” genre avoids generally upsetting themes such as death, rape, war, sex, and other distasteful or “adult” themes. On the contrary, other scholars insist that “young adult” novels are simply novels deemed “teachable” to young adults with a young adult protagonist.
Neither of these definitions seem suitable for the wide variety of graphic novels available. Graphic novels can have a range in content from those suitable for your preschooler to more adult-like themes. Comics like Guinea Pig: Pet Shop Private Eye by Colleen AF Venable and Long Tail Kitty by Lark Pien depict the adventures of furry creatures with a reading level suitable for K-3 readers. For more advanced readers, there are comics like Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman and any of the wide variety of superhero comics published by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. These graphic novels depict themes of genocide, murder, rape, violence, sex, war, sexual abuse, and other unsavory real-world topics. Graphic novels can, and do, depict a variety of topics and themes that are suitable for both children and adults. Graphic novels contain the many of same components that make up many of the young adult novels in the mainstream market. Elie Wiesel’s Night, frequently taught in schools, depicts the real-life experiences of Wiesel’s during the Holocaust. Similarly, Maus, tells the story of Spiegelman’s father and his own survival during the Holocaust. What Maus does for readers, as opposed to YA literature on the subject, it uses the visual depictions of mice [Jews] and cats [Nazis] to explain to young readers the hatred towards Jews in Nazi Germany. Spiegelman juxtaposes his images alongside the words of his father to create an image that haunts the reader and contains the same emotional and symbolic effects as Wiesel’s novel. Where Wiesel emphasizes the symbol of night as the end of lives of the Jews, Spiegelman uses the mice in his novel to emphasize the sheer numbers in which the Jewish people were exterminated.
Other graphic novels, more commonly recognized, are those in the Batman universe. The Batman comics, originally Detective Comics, have been around for over 75 years. The character of Batman has evolved in many different ways over its 75 years and has expanded its readership from those first learning how to read to those who have been following the series from when they were kids. The Batman comics have grown with their audience, but many of the comics in the Batman universe still retain the child-like innocence it had when it was first published in 1939. Li’l Gotham by Dustin Nguyen is a branch of the Batman universe that is suitable for children just learning to read whereas Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is more adult in its content as is harrowed as one of the greatest comic books ever written. Published in 1986, it is the first instance of the dark, brooding, character seeking vengeance that we know today.1 Films like The Dark Knight and the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie would not have been possible without Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Like it or not, scholars cannot deny the impact that graphic novels, even those for children and young adults, have on society.
What cause do scholars have to deem young adult literature with less merit than classical literature? Would anyone consider Wiesel’s novel of less literary value, because it is widely read by young adults, than something like Oliver Twist or For Whom the Bell Tolls (which are also commonly read in schools)? Many of the novels read in high school classrooms are commonly considered novels of literary merit. It is safe to assume that any book that a young adult is reading, is considered a young adult novel. This would make classical novels, like Wiesel’s novel and others, a part of the category known as “young adult” literature. However, what young adults read outside the classroom can still be regarded as highly.
The massive phenomenon of novels like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter cannot be overlooked. Graphic novels have become a huge part of the reading spectrum of young adult males. Studies show that males in grade 10 were found “proficient” at reading only 31.6% of the time, as compared to the 36.0% for females. Only 28.5% of males were assessed as “advanced” readers as compared to 36.0% for females.2 In a gender struggling to become proficient readers, comic books hold the interests of young men and get them reading. One study shows that 75% of the comic book audience are boys ranging in age from 18-45.3 Graphic novels use the combination of art and writing to pique the interest of young men and the visual cues intertwined with complex texts help the young readers absorb and understand what they’re reading. Graphic novels pose adult-like content in a way that is available to readers all over the age spectrum.
Graphic novels have proven themselves to be topically designed for both adults and children, as well as worthy of literary notoriety. They assemble the greatest aspects of art and literature into a format that can easily entertain and challenge readers of all levels. Graphic novels should not be overlooked by literary critics and should be considered an astounding compilation of art and literature in one.
- “50 Best Of The Best Graphic Novels.” Forbidden Planet.
- Maryland State Assessment Reading Results 2004, Maryland State Department of Education
- “Who Are the Comic Book Fans on Facebook?” Graphic Policy.
Theresa Kurzawa is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut. She is managing editor for the Long River Review and is on the fiction panel.