‘Real Readers,’ ‘Real Books,’ and Missing out on Comics

I’ve read many variations of the charges historically laid against comics, but oh, they never get old. Bill Bryson, in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid—his memoir about growing up in 1950s Iowa—recounts the charges Fredrick Wertham laid against comics in Seduction of the Innocent. According to Wertham they caused moral degradation, “promoted violence, torture, criminality, drug-taking, and rampant masturbation, though,” as Bryson notes, “not presumably at the same time.”

 

“Wertham saw sex literally in every shadow. He pointed out how in one from of an action comic the shading on a man’s shoulder, when turned at an angle and viewed with an imaginative squint, looked exactly like a woman’s pudenda. (In fact it did. There was no arguing the point.) Wertham also announced what most of us knew in our hearts but were reluctant to concede—that many of the superheroes were not fully men in the red-blooded, girl-kissing sense of the term. Batman and Robin in particular he singled out as ‘a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.’ It was an unanswerable charge. You only have to look at the tights.”

 

So it doesn’t surprise me to read quotes from librarians in 1940s condemning comics using their own framework of understanding—children who read comics weren’t really reading, and even worse, they were being permanently damaged by this failing and would never really be able to read properly. For all that current librarianship is big on connecting people to the information they need, it’s origins are more prescriptive—for those who came to the library for reading materials, it was about connecting people not with the right book, but with the right kind of book.

 

The preconceived notions about who reads comics and why have been thoroughly rehashed as the format has become increasingly legitimized in the public eye (as The Onion remarked last year with their rather pointed headline: “Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story”), but despite this librarians are still talking about them as if they’re a untested and potentially unsound variable. Lucia Cedeira Serantes, in “Misfits, Loners, Immature Students, and Reluctant Readers: Librarianship in the Construction of Teen Readers of Comics,” looks closely at the language used and attitudes displayed by librarians in relation to comics and teenagers, and a fair bit of it is depressingly old-school; viewing comics as inferior graphic novels and both as inferior to ‘real books,’ and viewing the teenagers who read them as immature, either in terms of literacy level or as readers who hadn’t learned to discern yet, and hoping they’ll move on to ‘real’ reading.

 

The idea of comic books as a morally corrupting influence on youth fell by the wayside long ago; Wertham’s campaign against comics has long been discredited and Seduction of the Innocent holds on only among those interested in the history of the format, as a kind of cultural artifact; accusations of Batman and Robin as ‘secret homosexuals’ or that Wonder Woman was a lesbian because of her independence are obvious vestiges of a particularly homophobic age. But the attitudes expressed by librarians at the height of the moral panic that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code still hold on today. While the idea that comics are void of morality has been dismissed as a ridiculous moment of national hysteria, the notion that comics are void of literary value has hung on. The mere existence of the term ‘graphic novel’ attests to the fact that comics as a form have plenty of potential for compelling narrative, but continue to be stigmatized; something like Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are ‘literature,’ i.e. definitely not comic books.

 

01Coveted elementary school library reading materials.

 

I read comics as a child; my elementary school library was serving a lot of French immersion students and had cottoned on to the Franco-Belgium comics scene in a big way. In a similar stroke of ingenuity, my parents realized that I would be pleased as punch with birthday gifts of Sailor Moon manga no matter what language they were in, and so they made their daughter happy and were assured that she was practising her French in a single stroke.

 

02Well played, parents, well played.

 

But then I stopped when I entered junior high, mostly because comics just… disappeared, both my awareness and environs. Presumably because comics were for kids. Or if they weren’t for kids, they were for guys. Anyway, there were plenty of other things to read, I wasn’t lacking.

 

I started reading comics again when I was half-way through my B.A. in English lit, throwing myself into ‘graphic novels’ and superheroes and new narratives, and I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to read them when I was a young adult. I love them now, and although I wouldn’t recommend every book that I read now to my young adult self, I have often found myself reading a book and thinking about how much I would have enjoyed comics as an interesting and enjoyable narrative form, and wishing they’d had more visibility at the time.

 

In terms of fiction, I read standard English Major fare—Austen and the Brontës; Middlemarch and Aurora Leigh, but I also adore the sensationalist literature of the time, some of which is campy and some just truly awful books—Castle of Otranto and The Monk. And a whole mess of contemporary literature that currently seem to all within the nebulous mass of literary fiction that ‘well-read’ people read; and also the classics of genre fiction, mainly sci-fi/fantasy and some detective; and sometimes I read really badly-written books because I liked their hilariously terrible cover.
And comics. Sometimes graphic novels. Or non-fiction.
Or I abandon books for weeks and read reams of articles and online commentary. Or webcomics. Sometimes I forgo reading in favour of re-watching episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

 

The point is, my reading habits are inconsistent: I read things that are popularly considered to be good literature and things that are popularly considered to be garbage, and I gain from all of them. But more importantly, it wouldn’t matter if I tipped the scales in one way or another, because there’s no such thing as a ‘real reader’ and there’s no right way to read. My boyfriend, for instance, has an aversion to the literary fiction which I love and although we share tastes in comic books and genre fiction, I’ve never felt inclined the crack open the kind of military or political history he prefers. Readers; they have different wants and needs. Go figure.

 

The notion of reading materials as a natural hierarchy, a ladder that you climb in one direction as you read ‘better’ materials—ascending until you’ve outgrown reading all that other garbage and have finally matured enough for the worthy literature and will never look back now—is absurd and narrow-minded. The treatment of comics as a reading material that is worth less than others is the result of buying into this idea, and it means that people are missing out on an entire swath of materials that can engage, inspire, and yes, entertain them. Maybe not everyone, but enough that it’s a small tragedy. Comics have made gains in credibility, but it’s a problem if librarians are still framing comics as a convenient bottom rung to coax young adults onto the ladder so they can move onwards and upward. Sometimes I forget that comics are still so stigmatized: it’s irritating to go home for the holidays and have your leisure reading interrupted in order to be informed that comics are for children. There’s no reason an entire narrative genre should be viewed as something to be grown out of. What a waste.

 

03

Comics to love, young-adult appropriate: try the comics or the graphic novels; enjoy the superheroes, fantasy, or realism; mix with ‘real books’ or enjoy exclusively.
Do whatever you want.

 

(Needless to say this isn’t a comprehensive or even particularly cohesive collection, it’s just a mix of books that I own or have read recently which came to mind when thinking about young adult readers.)

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