By: Alex Young
For: Donna Kakonge
Comic books and comic book culture is a subject that is not met with much intellectual or academic scrutiny very often. The subject is usually brushed off with skepticism and stereotypes by people who are not actively engaged with the medium itself or its fans. Despite being a widely known sub-cultural group within North American popular culture since the explosion of science fiction in the 1950’s, comic book culture continues to remain misunderstood and overlooked. As more Hollywood films adapt classic comic book characters, comic sales remain strong within the publishing industry and comic culture hosts massive gatherings such as San Diego’s ComiCon, comic books are arguably more mainstream than ever. This article is designed to shatter stereotypes, ignite discussion and introduce the idea that comic books (and their fans) are keeping the historical art of storytelling alive in a way the world has never seen. By revealing the way comic books engage their audience, encourage children to read, and create a fictional reckoning with historical events, prepare to discover a universe that’s unknown to many people yet inspires to millions of others.
Misconceptions & Stereotypes
Brahm Wiseman owns and manages Heroes Comics in London Ontario that was established in 1991 and is the largest distributor of comics and graphic novels in Southwestern Ontario. Wiseman is a University graduate that has been working hard to put comics into the hands of everyone actively pursuing their passion for them or anyone who’s looking for something new to lay their eyes on. For someone with a profitable business, academic accolades and an in-depth range of knowledge of the market for comics, one of his biggest problems is combating the stereotypes of who reads comics and why they read them.
Wiseman said, “The thing is the nerdy, geeky conception around comics. Mainstream media seems to be embracing that with a sitcom; I don’t even watch it, [‘The Big Bang Theory’ created by Chuck Lorre]. A bunch of socially awkward nerds that are obsessive about comics. Now that stereotype might exist but there’s usually a reason why stereotypes exist. I’m sure there are some people like that out there but that’s not something I want to perpetuate or embrace, I want everybody reading comics. I want kids, much older people and women are key demographics that we [comic proprietors] want to reach out to.”
Travis Mazereeuw is a co-owner, co-founder and artist at Visions Found, which is an international graphic novel company (http://www.visionsfound.com/staff.php). As a comic book artist he explains his idea of how comic book fans are perceived by people through common representations of comic books through popular culture and their basis in reality. Mazereeuw said, “As far as stigma, you have the people that love it and I think everything should be taken in moderation. Then there are the people who create their own perceptions of what it[ comic book culture] is, whether it is truthful or not. I think for comics it definitely has that fear, it’s the same with people who are into ‘Magic Cards’, or video games or ‘World of Warcraft’.”
But do these stereotypes have any basis in reality? Do they affect the way comic book fans or artists are treated in their day to day social encounters? Mazeereeuw explains by saying, “I definitely know there’s that stigma for comics or people into any kind of entertainment that’s outside the box; people feel they don’t know how to relate to them. They’re [comic fans] are these foreign objects. You just have to take that extra step to open them up, people don’t want to because they want everyone else to do that to them. Nerd is just another word for passion. If you’ve got an issue with the word ‘nerd’ than you’ve got an issue with passion.”
Intellectual Value of Comics to the Reader
Throughout history mankind has always created its own mythology to explain our origin’s, invent heroes and create stories to justify our own morality. It could be argued right now that comic books serve a much different purpose that simply providing fantastical exaggerated heroes that live on other planets or in a different age beyond our human lives here on Earth. Often in comic books human beings are the ones being saved rather than saving ourselves or each other with rare exceptions. But in reality, are comic books providing our modern mythology or archetypes of twenty-first century storytelling?
Mazereeuw explains, “Like Greek and Roman mythology, you have your Gods, you have your Hercules. I think there are definitely similarities, I think people did believe in it [ancient mythology present during their lifetime] or did believe in it more because there wasn’t as many distractions.”
But if that is the case, how are comic books affecting the way modern humanity views the ancient art of telling a story? Mazereeuw said, “You want to search for your hero, you want to search for your Gods, a lot of people’s meaning in life is to search for meaning. That goes hand in hand with what God or heroes mean to some people, that’s myth to some people but its truth to others. That’s a fair question to ask and I think modern day comic books are creating their own mythology and their own Gods if you will.”
Even by seeing a cinematic adaptation of a comic, the audience is still viewing the plot and characters through the subjective view of the director and their interpretation of the story. Whereas if a reader engages themselves with a graphic novel they’re still free to imagine how a character might sound and how each frame flows into the next to form a sequence. Even though books combine imagery with literature in a way that differs than cinema, how do comic books separate themselves from other mediums when they tell a story?
Wiseman says, “It still straddles that fine line between literature and cinema but you get the best of both worlds. That’s always been my argument about comics is that you really have more infinite possibilities with what you can do with a comic than you can with a book or with cinema. Cinema always has a lot of elements of literature, and you have that visual side the visual arts world has. With comics you get every genre of literature, every way that you can write things, it’s the best of both worlds where the others are kind of limited, they’ve only got that one world.”
Engaging Children to Start Reading at an Earlier Age
The concept of utilizing comics and the tools they use to present ideas and stories to younger children in schools. The idea of introducing comics to children might be intriguing to some and confusing to others. Wiseman discussed the idea about his first hand experience of introducing graphic novels to children as young as five years old when his niece got a copy of “Owly” by Andrew Runton. Runton created the “Owly” series in 2001, which is published by Simon & Schuster, which is a series designed for young children to capture the imaginations to help them learn to read . Wiseman explains, “It doesn’t have words in it. They do speak but in the word balloons they just have pictures. It was the first time she ever made it through a book, completely grasped what was going on, without being able to read, but she was able to piece the entire story together without using images.”
Despite not having words, how exactly would a graphic novel of this nature provide the tools for children to learn to read? Wiseman answered by saying, “So for her that left to right motion of reading down the page and leading the entire story from beginning to end. It really gave her the patience and the encouragement that she got through a book and completely got something out of it.” Some of you might be wondering how children at the same age would react to this material in an academic setting while in their intellectual infancy? Once again, Wiseman came up with a compelling answer by stating, “Right when you’re starting to read, I guess grade one is where you learn cat and dog and that sort of thing. You’ve got your alphabet before that but my sister is actually a teacher and she was blown away with it [the ‘Owly’ series] so she brought tons of that stuff in.”
Wiseman grew up in a French emersion school and had trouble reading French and English, but once he discovered the stash of comics within his school’s library he dove into a world of illustrations paired with words. What was the result? “I kind of forgot about that, but all the ‘Tin-Tin’ and ‘Lucky Luke’, I think they’re still using that stuff. When you’re learning a new language it helped a lot. I couldn’t read French that well, I couldn’t read English that well either, but it gave me something to want to grasp.”
Fictional Reckoning with Historical Events
Even though some people might be under the assumption that the fantastical nature of stories within comics has nothing to do with reality or how society has evolved, comics have often dealt with world events in a fictional context. Even though some comics deal with historical events as they’re happening, there are many modern comics that tackle significant events in the past in a whole new way through fiction that might not be based in fact but provide a unique perspective.
The modern comic series “Civil War Adventure” published by History Graphics Press certainly proves to be an interesting case by introducing readers to new fictional characters that interact within a historical context within the story. The series also serves academic value by revealing facts about the history of the American Civil War in between chapters. Each issue contains pages about the types of artillery The Northern and Southern armies used, the medical science used to treat soldiers, the military strategies that led to victory at the battle of Gettysburg and more. It’s interesting to see comics become a public sphere that can provide a new perspective through the eyes of fictional characters or start a new discussion on historical events among its readers. Although “Civil War Adventure” was started in 2008 by Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz , comic books have traditionally made a fictional reckoning with historical events. One of the most controversial comics ever printed was the 1977 issue of “The Justice” Society” published by DC Comics that depicts Batman, Superman, the Green Lantern and other superheroes fighting Adolf Hitler during World War II . The issue shows these super heroes fighting Adolf Hitler and an army of Valkyries from Germanic mythology which forces the Nazi’s to change their course to ultimately invade Poland instead of England. Although his issue could be considered offensive by many people and harmless entertainment to others, regardless of your opinion, such a controversy over a comic book does force people to talk about what really happened during World War II. Such a controversy would drive some people to share their knowledge of such a turbulent period in time for humanity and hopefully drive those who don’t know to learn what happened in the pages of history. Either way, this comic book actually generates an intellectual discussion on history, humanity, morality, story-telling and education regardless of anyone’s opinion on any side of the political spectrum.
Wiseman discussed how comic books have evolved or history by saying, “I think most great works of art are a product of their time or reflect their time in some way. Whether they’re great or not, look at the golden age of comics, they’re very reflective of forties post Second World War propaganda anti-Japanese, anti-Nazi stuff. Right to the fifties with the Commie scare and ‘V For Vendetta’, ‘Watchmen’, Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: Dark Knight Returns’ are really big products of the eighties”.
But beyond their release date, how much depth could the story of cartoon superheroes have on the reader? What subject matter could they explore that would make readers think about the world around them that relate to their everyday lives during that time period? Wiseman replied by saying, “Those were definitely a reaction to the Cold War, [Margaret] Thatcher, the war on drugs, Regan-ism. ‘Batman: Dark Knight Returns’ was about the media invasion that’s sort of full of right wing talking heads on TV news, right when CNN was popping around. It’s totally reflective of what’s going on, if anything comics are sort of a media.”
After investigating what comic books and comic book culture have to offer, keep in mind that for some it might be love at first sight while others might need a magnifying glass to peak their interest. Whether you’re a fan or not, keep in mind that comic books are just a world waiting for you to discover them and it’s a universe that’s only going to keep growing and growing. Whether you want to be a part of it or not hopefully you’ll be able to understand the interest of the people involved and realize that as misunderstood as this subculture and its content may be, it’s only growing stronger with or without you. A lot of people look for inspiration wherever they can, and ultimately, comic books are a way for some people to find the strength to seek out the hero in all of us.
Official Heroes Home Page – About the Store, Official Heroes Comics Home page, Heroes Inc. – 2008- http://heroescomics.ca/html/about.html
3 Official History Graphics Press Home Page – About the Artists – Official History Graphic Press Webpage –2009, History Graphic Press Inc. – http://www.historygraphicspress.com/about.html,
4 Justice Society issue 29 – Hard Copy – Levitz, Paul, (1977). The Untold Origin of the Justice Society, Vol. 7, No. 29 Aug-Sept. 1977, DC Comics Inc, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY