Near Mint Memories presents: A Critical Eye on Comics


It is my pleasure to present to you all an analysis that long-time Nexus reader and forum poster Matt Hodge, also known as Sandmatt, submitted as part of an academic course.

The following paper was prepared by Matt Hodge and the opinions expressed therein are those of said author only.

To provide feeback on the following analysis paper please e-mail Matt Hodge at or visit the Nexus Forum.



Fig. 1. Cartoon from Punch, 1895

Fig. 2. Cover of MAD from October 1957

Fig. 3. Cover from the Amazing Spider-Man #96, May 1971

Fig. 4. Cover from A Contract With God, 1978

Fig. 5. Page from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, 1986

Fig. 6. Page from Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, 1986

Fig. 7. Page from American Splendor

Fig. 8. Cover from Swamp Thing illustrated by Steve Bissette

Fig. 9. Page from X-Men #2, 1963 illustrated by Jack Kirby

Fig. 10. Page from Will Eisner’s The Spirit, 1947

Fig. 11. Example of Jim Lee’s penciling from sketch for Maul from WildC.A.T.S

Fig. 12. Example from Art Spiegelman’s Maus, 1986

Fig. 13. Cover from Robert Crumb exhibition catalogue Yeah But Is It Art?, 2004 illustration by Robert Crumb

Fig. 14. Page from Joe Sacco’s Palestine


Through this essay I am going to look at the world of the comic book and graphic novel as a legitimate art form and not as it is often seen, cheap entertainment. It is not hard to see why comics have fallen into this niche; they used to be cheaply produced on cheap paper, with only basic printing techniques. The format by nature is commercial and mass produced in order to sell as many units to as many people as possible. The great icons of comics are often those designed for a less sophisticated and often younger audience, for example Superman, a childish fantasy about having absolute power created originally by two teenage friends with a keen interest in science fiction, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

This essay will argue that these books, particularly the new generation of books being produced now, should be given an artistic respect especially in Britain and America. Comic books are already accepted as viable art forms in Europe, where in France every one in five books sold is a graphic novel[1], and Japan, which accepts the books due to their rich history in their scrolls, and illustration. The format has come a million miles in its developments since the days when Superman was created, yet people insist on viewing it in the same manner. The format has become a forum for discussion of philosophy, ethics and politics. Many writers and artists relish in the fact that they can do this as the format “fly’s below critical radar”[2]. This essay will not argue that this art form is ‘high’ art, the commercial nature of the art form does to a large part prevent that, but it will argue that the format is a legitimate art form that allows discussion and exploration of ideas like any other art form.

What is the definition of a ‘comic’?

Will Eisner, who is often considered a seminal character in the development of comics defined the medium as ‘sequential art'[3] and left the definition simply as that. Whether the sequence was two or a hundred images it did not matter, all comics could be considered sequential art and vice versa. This was and still is considered true, however this definition is too broad. The definition which is currently considered accurate was produced by Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics. The book, set out as an actual comic, looks to explore the individual components that make up a comic, but in order to do that a definition is necessary. McCloud argues that saying sequential art is too simple as this could include other areas of art, such as calligraphy and film; in the case of film it is the difference of how time is conveyed that separates a comic and a film. Space between the panels on a page of a comic book does what time does for film.[4] After some exploration McCloud defines comics as:

Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/ or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.[5]

However McCloud’s definition allows us to include all sequential art. As early examples of comics he uses the Mexican picture manuscript Tiger’s-claw[6], 1049 and the Bayeux Tapestry, 1066. These should not really be classified as comics; by accepting them as early comics it would be possible to go even further back through history and class early cave drawings as comics. This is not to say they have not had some influence on the format and they can be considered as the ancestors of the current day format, but under a present day definition of a comic they are not comics. This is however where the modern day format obtains its central philosophy; to exploit the powerful tool of visual communication. Comics have inherited a tradition that can not only be seen on the works mentioned but on many other historical works as well; the use of words and image to convey what is happening. This is an ancient tradition and it is only under modern communications that the two have been divided into separate disciplines.[7]

The invention of the printing press in 1452 by Johann Gutenberg was an important advancement of technology, one that would eventually allow comic books to be produced however at this time there was no market for the medium; that would come along much later in the nineteenth century. Printing had been around previous to Gutenberg’s invention, largely in Asia, but Gutenberg’s invention allowed for mass production of books to begin. Previously to this books had been produced by hand. The printing press allowed books to be mass produced therefore spread news and information quickly and directly to the masses. The comic that we now know, came into being during the nineteenth century. This happened because facsimile copying was available due to technological advances in photo-processing and the cost of printing and binding, again due to technological advancements, had fallen, meaning that publishing volumes of these images and stories was now more financially viable.

The comic has been formed through an evolution of different art styles and advancements in technology, and as such this should be acknowledged in its definition:

Commercially printed juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/ or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewers.

This definition though is also not enough; it describes the actual physical form of the comic book but not the content. The content to a large extent is not important, genre, cast and plot are inconsequential but the way these elements are depicted is important. Comics do have their own set vocabulary, some is now universal whilst other elements remain cultural and may be specific to any given region. This vocabulary is vital to the success of the book as this is how the ideas are conveyed to the reader, it is a language. This language has to be understood, as Goethe said the critic can only decide what the artist was trying to accomplish and whether they succeeded.[8] If the language was unreadable then the book would fail, however everyone when they pick up a comic book can begin to understand the narrative presented. The comic books vocabulary is made up of visual symbols and people, when reading these books understand more of it than they realise.

Symbolism is a powerful tool that is used in every element of a comic due to their nature. A comic is a series of static images that are trying to convey a story that is happening in time. Therefore time must be emulated, and it is; in the gaps between the panels, known as gutters[9], this is also where the reader uses their imagination to fill in the act of motion inherently missing in static imagery. Emotion, tension, suspense and all other sensations must be conveyed to the reader, this is done through the posture, facial expressions and position of the figures in conjunction with the way in which the dialogue is represented. The shape of the ‘balloon’ in which the dialogue is displayed can dictate how the dialogue is meant to be read; is the character shouting, speaking normally or thinking to themselves? The answer to this question always, without exception comes from what have become universal shapes for the speech balloon. Symbolism is the vehicle in which the narrative is told, without symbolism there would be no narrative in the still images and the comic could not exist.

With symbolism being so integral to the very nature of the comic and narrative art, the comic can now be defined as:

Commercially printed juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/ or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewers by use of a set vocabulary and symbolism.

However, for the symbolism in the narrative to be understood, the reader must be able to recognise the symbols used. This is usually obtained through the use of a shared common experience. With the text this is taken as a given, as long as it is in a language you understand as reading tends to be learnt during infancy. Pictures tend to be more complicated, but over time a visual vocabulary is built up, an individual can identify a drawing of a person because they have seen a person in life. No matter how abstracted that would become, part of the individual would still read the image as a person. The person is represented on the page by the use of symbols. This makes the use of representation integral to any comic, as it is to all narrative art. This means a comic can once again be defined:

Commercially printed juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/ or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewers through representation by use of a set vocabulary and symbolism.

Narrative and the comic

Narrative art has always been popular and employed as a powerful communications tool. Essentially this is what a comic is; a narrative art. Narrative art has been used since the time when man lived in caves. It is at the foundations of every written language. The comic also shares the power of a fundamental communicational tool; as can be seen by the censorship cases that have been brought against it, for example when the Comics Code Authority was created during 1954.

In 1954 a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham released a damning book about the comic book industry Seduction of the Innocent. The book was academically unsound, with many other psychiatrists of the time criticising his work, but the book did produce the moral panic intended. Wertham noted that comics were found in the room of teenage suicides and would ruin the taste of fine literature. Wertham accused comics of being the cause of increased juvenile delinquency and having the ability to produce copycat crimes.[10] Seduction of the Innocent led to comics being used as a social scapegoat. In a similar vein as to how popular film, television, pop music and video games have all been used since. The books were too violent, too horrific and too sexual. The same political currents that had created the Hollywood blacklist and the McCarthy hearings at this time now also fought against the relatively small comic book industry. The publishing companies banded together and formed the Comic Magazine Authority of America (CMAA). This was a trade organization which was set up to ease public concerns. The CMAA set up several guide lines about what could and could not be in comic books, this produced the Comic Codes Authority (CCA). Women were to be properly dressed, authority figures respected and violence toned down. If the comic was not up to the code then it would not be published. This scare was brought on largely by EC comics the publisher of most of the popular horror fantasy stories and most notably MAD (Fig. 3), a comic that was upgraded to a magazine format in order to escape the confines of the CCA. Whilst the CCA regulations only directly affected the American comic books and their reader’s, repercussions were felt in the United Kingdom; American comic books were banned by an Act of Parliament in 1955.[11]

It was not until May 1971 that a mainstream comic would be published without the permission of the CCA. This was Amazing Spider-Man #96 – 98 (Fig. 2). The story showed one of Spider-Man’s friends as a drug addict and how Spider-Man saved his friend’s life whilst questioning how he could do such a thing to himself. Even though the story sent out a strong anti-drugs message the CCA still would not allow it to be published, Marvel however published the story without the permission of the CCA. This incident lead to the CCA having to update its regulations, drugs were now allowed to be depicted as long as they were shown as a “vicious habit”.

Throughout the history of the comic censorship drives like this can be seen, it would seem that a format that has little ability to be more than a medium which can only tell simple morality tales, baby science fiction / fantasy and base satire[12] has had some social impact. The most recent case of censorship being in 1996 when a shipment of Robert Crumb’s book My Trouble with Women were seized by Customs and Excise under obscenity laws. The book Lord Horror was also seized; Lord Horror was published in both novel and comic form, the comic form was ordered to be destroyed whilst the novel was cleared of all charges. In the Judges words the comic may ‘appeal to people of a lesser intellect’.[13]

A common misconception of the comic is that they are aimed at children, particularly young teenage boys. This is not true the comic in has been aimed at all levels of age, gender, class and race at one time or another. Punch (1841) (Fig. 1), arguably the first comic book produced, was aimed at the middle classes with its content of political satire. The book, a monthly publication, contained ink drawings mixed with text satirising events of the day in the same fashion as the cartoons found in the broadsheet newspapers. It would however be true to say that the majority of comic books produced have been aimed at teenage boys even from the early days of the penny dreadful.

The penny dreadfuls were often violent prose stories produced with pictures to accompany the text, written primarily for young working class men. These also faced censorship due to their under currents of anti-establishment politics, however it was officially said they were too violent;[14] a mirror of the events that gave rise to the CCA almost a century later.

It is easy to see the reasons why comics are seen as being aimed primarily at children. The truth is that many modern comics are aimed at early teens, a customer base that has a totally disposable income, and are therefore going to buy whatever appeals to them. Many of the comic icons, particularly super heroes are aimed at children. It is easy to see why children enjoy the stories, the characters tend to be simplified versions of characters seen in real life but can do all the things people fantasise about, such as being able to fly or turn invisible.

Comic books do tend to use a simple narrative, despite which readership they are aimed at. This is done in order to give the reader a reference point from their own lives to build a new narrative from, much like the way in which cartoons, whether its Mickey Mouse or The Simpsons, use relatively basic looking characters. The more abstracted the characters and narratives become the more likely a reader or viewer will be able to connect with it.[15] This is similar to what Mondrian did in his paintings by moving to the simplicity of block colour, the horizontal and the vertical line, total and complete abstraction. This is also similar to what Barthes says in his essay Death of the Author;[16] every viewer will bring to the text their own meaning by applying a personal narrative to it. However not all comic books do use a simple narrative though, perhaps the best example of this would be Art Spiegelman’s book Maus[17] which uses two narratives inter woven to tell the story of his fathers life, one set in the present day where he is a bitter old man, and one set in his life during World War II and his time in Auschwitz.

Fig.1. Cartoon from Punch, 1895

Fig. 2. Cover of MAD from October 1957

Fig. 3. Cover from the Amazing Spider-Man #96, May 1971

From periodical to novel

The comic book format by nature lends itself to a simple narrative; the creators of the book have a set number of pages in which to tell a complete story by tradition. Few comics had stories written across multiple issues prior to the 1980s, and unlike today, it was certainly not the status quo. The extension of narrative in the comic book is due to the birth of the graphic novel. In 1978 Will Eisner released the first book to be termed a graphic novel, A Contract With God (Fig. 4). This was the first time an extended narrative had been placed in to this format, the term graphic novel was applied to it and to call it a comic book would reduce its social standing.[18] The graphic novel became the cornerstone of the independent publications outside of Marvel and DC. The independent creators[19] have often seen themselves more as artists than the mainstream (Marvel and DC) creators due to their flexibility to tell the stories they want to tell and not what an editor tells them. This new longer format suited these creators as it allowed them more room to tell more engaging stories.

The appeal of the graphic novel did not go un-noticed by the large companies, particularly DC comics. In 1986 Watchmen (by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons) (Fig. 5) and Batman: The Dark Night Returns (by Frank Miller) (Fig. 6) were both released. The books were originally released in a monthly format then collected as bound versions and marketed for mature readers. They both were intended to be read as a whole and not as separate issues, the separate issues became, distinctly, chapters of the story. Miller since the publication of the story has compared the structure of the narrative to musical notes as away to control the pace and emotion in the book,[20] this is comparable to the analogy to music that Will Eisner makes in Comics and Sequential Art.[21] Moore and Gibbons, on Watchmen also looked for this sort of control by employing a nine square grid pattern to their pages.[22] These formats allow a tight control over the narrative and the viewer’s eye. The viewer can be forced to either purposefully look harder than usual or miss small details adding a puzzle element to the book. The tighter the narrative, as for as panels per page is concerned the tense and hostile the atmosphere created tends to be, as the panels convey a sense of speed and urgency.

These books received wide spread critical acclaim, sold in record breaking numbers and for the first time saw non specialist bookstores selling comics, but not as comics as graphic novels. The idea that each individual comic should tell a self contained story was over; stories were to be told through multiple issues that could then be bound together under the marketing name of the graphic novel. It was seen by the publishers that the term graphic novel was more acceptable than the term comic book to the casual reader.

The graphic novel also brought with it some artistic credibility; it changed the comic from a periodical to a book, the difference being that a periodical has always had the connotation of being disposable, it is only temporary, and the book however is seen to be permanent and of value. It was up to the industry to prove its worth now and there have been many attempts with books like Ghost World (Dan Clowes) and American Splendor (Harvey Pekar) (Fig. 7) to name just a couple following in Will Eisner’s tradition. It is interesting that in the strictest sense (i.e. original full length works and not just issues collected and bound together) there are very few graphic novels based on the super hero format; that is still largely left to the periodicals.

Fig.4. Cover from A Contract With God, 1978

Fig. 5. Page from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, 1986

Fig. 6. Page from Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, 1986

Fig. 7. Page from American Splendor

Comics are a visual medium

Comic books are a visual medium that also contain text and narrative, the medium is not two separate methods of story telling, prose and illustration, crammed together. The medium shows the two harmoniously united, the two elements work together to convey the creator’s ideas. However if one side is weaker than the other then the quality of the book will be reduced. Over the years the various creative components of comics; the illustration and the writing have fought for supremacy. Especially in the mainstream companies, DC and Marvel, where it is common place to have at least two if not more people working on any given title,[23] each of these people want to be given the credit for the book, especially the writer and the person creating the pencil drawings. The amount of artistic freedom that the illustrator has though, is limited by the way in which the writer does his scripts. If the writer dictates what they want to see in each panel, and what each panel should look like then the illustrator is restricted to their only input being the way in which the characters on the page are drawn. If the writer is much more relaxed then the illustrator may end up deciding the entire visual look of the book. More often than not, though a compromise is reached where the two contribute in different ways to play off of their strengths in order to enhance the telling of the narrative.

The writer versus artist debate stems from the 1980s. Previously the credit had always been given to the artist or the team working on the book for the success of a book, it had always been presumed that the comic book was a visual medium and therefore the quality of the drawings were responsible for the sales of the book with writing being less important. DC asked Alan Moore to write Swamp Thing (Fig. 8) and it was to be illustrated by Steve Bissette. The book was released to critical acclaim but not due to it’s illustration but due to its quality of writing. It is important though to remember that a comic book is visual and the first thing a reader sees when they pick up a book is the quality of drawing and the visual way in which a story is laid out before them.

The quality of the drawing in a comic book can make the difference between a good script becoming a great story or a mediocre story. The merits of the comic book artist are judged in the same way as a classical painter. It is important to be able to convey meaning and emotion and have an understanding of composition and perspective. Many comics opt for a simple but effective style that is still similar to the types of images used when comics first appeared. The styles of Jack Kirby (Fig. 9) and Will Eisner (Fig. 10) still dominate the American and British approach to comics, Eisner more in the independents. The styles used in the books often show outside concerns with art, for example Marvel designed their books to emulate the paintings of Pop Artists during the late 1960s and 1970s.[24] This was one of the contributing factors to Marvel being considered cool and gaining its large readership of people in their late teens and early twenties during this period. Punch when it was first released was known by the quality of the drawings in it, EC became so popular during the 1950s because they were able to attract better artists than the other companies.

In the 1990s, the story telling that had been so prominent in the books during the 1980s was, for the most part, lost and replaced with a new eye catching computer enhanced, special effects laden art. This can largely be traced to artists like Todd MacFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee (Fig. 11). Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee had set up an independent publisher called Image. The company soon became known for its flashy art, this style of art is now referred to in the industry as the Image style. It is the comic equivalent of art for art’s sake. The style was all about big splash pages which reduce the amount of storytelling in the book, subsequently the books look good but do not particularly do what a comic book should; tell a story. Jim Lee, in Artists on Comic Art, credits Jack Kirby and MTV for the birth of the style; MTV for its fast paced imaging and weird angles and Jack Kirby for the full and double page splash[25]. The difference between what Jack Kirby did and the mid 1990s[26] Image style was that Kirby would limit these effects to once an issue for dramatic effect, for example the cliff hanger ending, the Image style however was an over indulgence of this style in order to make everything dramatic; it actually had the reverse effect, when everything is meant to be dramatic it just blends into the rest of the story and nothing ends up being dramatic.

Not all comic book art has to be straightforward narrative story telling, it is possible for the comic book artist to use elements of metaphor and allusion in a similar fashion as other artists do. Many comic creators do use the double symbolism of their imagery to provide a deeper added layer to the story they are telling such as Grant Morrison and Chris Watson in The Filth where the contrasts between Freudian sex theories, the superhero icon and the status quo are used to further the story. Another example would be in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as Miller deconstructs the heroes to appear more human, Miller draws them larger and larger to emphasise their once iconic nature in the world he has created. Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Fig. 12) is perhaps the best use of allusion and metaphors in a comic narrative, throughout Maus the characters are simplified to animals for example the Jews are mice, the Poles are pigs and the Germans are cats. This does several things that all create a larger impact in the narrative. The first is that by reducing characters to animals it creates the illusion that the characters are separate from reality and unattached, however they are not; they are real people facing extreme problems. Secondly the animal metaphor makes the comparison to Animal Farm by George Orwell; given the subject matter a more than suitable reference as ‘All animals are equal, But some animals are more equal than others.'[27] Thirdly the metaphor plays on cats and mice being mortal, eternal enemies. Lastly the use of the animal metaphor alludes to the old comical animal comics aimed at young children that were extremely popular around the time of World War II.

Fig. 8. Cover from Swamp Thing illustrated by Steve Bissette

Fig. 9. Page from X-Men #2, 1963 illustrated by Jack Kirby

Fig. 10. Page from Will Eisner’s The Spirit, 1947

Fig. 11. Example of Jim Lee’s penciling from sketch for Maul from WildC.A.T.S

Fig. 12. Example from Art Spiegelman’s Maus, 1986

Comic creator as artist

Comic book creators often try and raise themselves to the role of an artist. They presume by doing this that they are not already an artist, those that do believe they are an artist are always looking for a way to raise their profile and their works profile to that of art. It is interesting to see that those that are accepted by the establishment either embrace it to try and further comics in general (Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner, for example) or resent it and try to stay away from it (Robert Crumb, for example). Eisner has always believed that the comic is an art form and has pushed this idea forward. This was not well received during the early days of comics around the 1920s. At this time Eisner was a young man whose career was developing in the shadow of older cartoonists that had been or considered themselves ‘Vaudevillians.’ These were people that would draw live on stage at what were known as chalk talks. For years comics were told to stay in there place, often by people working in the industry who did not believe that they could be inspired in the same way as an artist or that what all they were doing was manipulating a communications tool. However visual art and visual communication go hand in hand, all art is designed to communicate an idea and it depends upon the broadness of definition used. Comics are now seen as an art form and a legitimate choice in life as a career, this can be readily seen by the number of sequential art courses taught at universities and schools, such as the course at the School of Visual Arts in New York that Eisner taught. These are not private run courses but are in established schools. Comics have begun to be accepted in galleries as can be seen by the Spiegelman exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Robert Crumb exhibition Yeah But Is It Art? at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne in 2004 (Fig. 13). It is interesting to see here though that neither of these comic artists have worked in the mainstream and that their origins are in the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s. Comics which did not draw upon fantasy for inspiration but real life and desires.

The underground comics came out of the hippie movement and tended to be in the same vein as MAD but much more radical, containing a mixture of social satire, base humour and erotica. Crumb though, despite his central role in the underground comic movement has always denied being a hippie. His comics were initially based on hallucinations and other experiences he’d had whilst on LSD. Crumb still sees himself as a comic artist and is fascinated by the interest museums and galleries are now showing in his work, he acknowledges his cross over appeal but treats it as a joke, whilst remaining proud at the same time. This can be seen in his drawing ‘Yeah But Is It Art?’ where we see Crumb sat at a coffee table with a fashionable art book drinking a cup of coffee posing the question. Crumb however does not take this seriously as he will not be distracted from having his coffee. Crumb is not interested in creating art, but rather telling stories based in the popular culture all around him, as such Crumb often places himself at the center of his own work showing us his insecurities and paranoia in his typical satirical style. Crumb disagrees with the desire to raise the station of comics as he sees it as a danger; the comics may end up being pretentious, they are meant to be ‘rough and working class’.[28]

Comic books are based on popular culture; this prevents them from being able to reach the critical prestige of high art. Their mass produced nature and low pricing makes them available to the masses, something which traditionally high art is not. There are no exclusions to who can or can not read a comic book. It is arguable that these features make comics a real art form; they communicate with the masses not just a select few. Many comic creators take this view in their desire to raise the status of comics. They like that their art is accessible to as many people as possible. This is possibly the reason why there seems to be only two dominant genres at any one time. To get their message across the artists choose to work in an established area that will be seen by as many people as possible.

The market appeal of comic books often makes them ‘fly… below critical radar'[29]. The view of comics as mere entertainment for the ‘uneducated’ means the critic pays little attention. This allows the artist to have complete flexibility over what they want to do and say, opening up many possibilities and ideas to explore. Due to the lack of criticism, comics have become somewhat of a playground for writers and artists to produce works that they usual would not conceive or be able to explore. This has attracted people from outside the realm of comics to become interested and wish to try their hand at it such as Kevin Smith (writer/director of films such as Clerks and Chasing Amy), should the venture into the medium be a failure the reputation of the person is unharmed as the critics were not there to pass their judgement. The attraction to the medium comes through the notion that it is one of the last ‘free mediums.'[30] It is possible for each creator to have their own individual voice in there work as the nature of the medium is malleable to any message. For as long as the critic deems the comic to be of little or no artistic value then it can remain a cultural phenomenon that can have an impact on society. Should the comic be accepted in to the art world then its power would be limited to the art world only and all cultural impact would be lost.

This does not does not however prevent the comic creator from attempting to raise the critical prestige of the format, the comic Raw (1980, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly) was an attempt at this. The comic was oversized and published under the banner of a ‘graphix’ magazine, associating it to the comix (the underground comics) which Spiegelman had previously been associated with. The pages in the anthology style magazine would show new original work by other creators from the underground and alternative scenes, whilst featuring work from Europe, where the format was already considered an art form. The oversized pages lent themselves to emphasising the art work making the comparison to paintings on canvas. By making this comparison the comic is trying to prove its worth as more than just a comic, it wants to be art and be appreciated as art.

Despite all attempts comic book art is rarely welcomed into the arts world; however there is an increasing acceptance of comics in the world of literature. Since Watchmen and later Maus, large publishing houses such as Pantheon and Penguin are now printing graphic novels and the retailers are beginning to stock more and more books in the format as more make their way onto the best seller lists and gain critical acclaim. There is an increasing amount of credit put on the writers of the books for their quality, not the artist. This is because the format is designed to tell stories and uses illustration as the vehicle to do this, after all the comic book is essentially a visual narrative. People are finally beginning to see the effectiveness of the medium and the possibilities it has in order to tell powerful emotional stories, in the same tradition as literary classics. In a way this is a reversal from the origin of comics where it was popular to convert literary classics and bible stories into the comic book medium in order to use them as educational aides; this is actually what EC were the primary publishers of before the days of Tales from the Crypt and MAD. EC comics used to stand for Educational Comics, not Entertainment Comics.

The graphic novels that do tend to cross over out of the niche comic books find themselves in tend to have come out of the underground movement. This may be part of the attraction to the general public. The books tend to be a little risqué, either through their content (for example Joe Sacco’s Palestine (Fig. 14)) or their exploration of the medium as an art form (for example the convoluted narrative in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth). They are not what most people believe to be a comic because most people only see the mainstream genres of superheroes and funny cartoons. They do not contain science fiction power fantasies; many contain real people in real situations and draw from experiences in life. These new cross over sensations hold much in common with the old underground comics; they are printed in black and white, they are literary and contain political and personal statements. The large difference between this type of book now and those during the 1960s and 1970s is that the modern contemporaries do not resort to base humour whilst trying to deal with issues of cultural importance. Put simply the underground comic has matured and come of age.

Fig. 13. Cover from Robert Crumb exhibition catalogue Yeah But Is It Art?, 2004 illustration by Robert Crumb

Fig. 14. Page from Joe Sacco’s Palestine.


Comics have come a long way from their humble beginnings as newspaper inserts, or as light hearted political satire anthologies, but when compared to most art forms are still in their youth. It is only now people are beginning to see the full potential of the format. The comics have not only made their way into general books stores but also into classrooms as educational aides. Marvel recently produced a line of books called Marvel Age, after requests from teachers in America, to encourage children to read more. Researchers discovered that the graphic novel on average introduced readers to twice as many words as a children’s book.[31] This has just reinforced the idea that the format is an effective way in which to communicate information. Much of modern media, whether it be film or videogames begin life in a comic format through the use of story boards. Increasingly Hollywood is relying on the comics to supply them with material with which to work[32]. Despite however many steps forward comics seem to take in their social standing there is always something there to knock them back. Whilst the art world refuses to acknowledge comics, comics will not be able to operate under the same freedoms. Comics will always, much like popular film, be subject to censorship. These cases of censorship show, if anything, the amount of cultural significance that comic books can and could have in the future.

Comic books in America and Britain will continue to fight for their acceptance as art. Whilst on the way to acceptance comics have picked up millions of readers, a number which continues to grow, due to their educational and entertainment values. With this now large interest the image of comics in society can only improve regardless of whether they are art or not they have found a home in uniting written word and images and pictures.



Barker, Martin Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, Manchester University Press, 1989
Barthes, Roland Image Music and Text, Fontana Paperbacks, 1977

Crumb, Robert The R. Crumb Coffee table art book, Kitchen Sink Press, 1997

Eisner, Will, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press (25 printing, 2003), 1985

Fredric Wertham, Fredric Seduction of the innocent, Museum Press, 1955

Gifford, Denis, The International Book of Comics, Deans International Publishing, 1984

Kwitney, Alissa introduction by Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: King of Dreams, DC comics, 2003

Lee, Stan and Buscema, John, How to Draw the Marvel Way, Simon and Schuster, 1978

Lee, Stan and Mair, George, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, Fireside, 2002

McCloud, Scott Understanding Comics, Paradox Press, 1993

McCloud, Scott Reinventing Comics, Paradox Press, 2000

Nyberg, Amy Kiste, Seal Of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, University Press of Mississipi, 1998

Orwell, George Animal Farm, 1945

Sabin, Roger, Comics, comix & Graphic Novels, Phaidon 1996

Salisbury, Mark Artists on Comic Art, Titan Books, 2000

Spiegelman, Art and Kidd, Chip, Jack Cole and Plastic Man, DC comics, 2001

Talon, Durwin S., Comics Above Ground, TwoMorrows Publishing, 2004

Weiner, Stephen The Rise of the Graphic Novel, NBM Publishing 2003

Witek, Joseph, Comic Book as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman and Harvey Pekar, University Press of Mississipi, 1990

Exhibition catalogues

Crumb, Robert, ‘Yeah But is it art? Museum Ludwig, Cologne , 2004

Graphic Novels

Eisner, Will introduction by Denny O’Neil, A Contract With God, DC comics, 2000

Miller, Frank, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, DC comics, 1986

Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave, Watchmen, DC comics, 1986

Morrison, Grant and McKean Dave after word by Karen Berger, Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary edition, DC comics 2004

Seagle, Steven T. and Teddy Kristiansen, It’s a bird…, DC comics 2004

Spiegelman, Art, The Complete Maus, Pantheon Books, 1996


Spielgman, Art interviewed on “The Late Show”, BBC2, 12 October 1993


Comic Book Conundrum:

Dueling Modems Comics Forum:

The 100 Greatest comics of the 20 century:

[1] Stephen Weiner, The Rise of the Graphic Novel, NBM Publishing 2003, p. 59

[2] Art Spielgman, interviewed on “The Late Show”, BBC2, 12 October 1993

[3] Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse press,1985 (25 printing, 2003), p. 5

[4] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Paradox Press,1993 p. 7

[5] Ibid, p. 9

[6] Also known as Ocelot’s-Claw

[7] Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press, 1985 (25th printing, 2003), p. 13

[8] Will Eisner, introduction by Denny O’Neil, A Contract With God, DC comics, 2000, Introduction

[9] Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press (25th printing, 2003), 1985, p. 163

[10] Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the innocent, Museum Press, 1955 p. 70

[11] Sabin, Roger; Comics, comix & Graphic Novels, Phaidon 1996 p. 68

[12] Will Eisner, introduction by Denny O’Neil, A Contract With God, DC comics, 2000, Introduction

[13] Sabin, Op. cit., p. 215

[14] Martin Barker, Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, Manchester University Press, 1989 pp. 99-105

[15] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Paradox Press,1993 p. 37

[16] Roland Barthes, Image Music and Text, Fontana Paperbacks, 1977

[17] Published in two volumes originally: Maus : A survivors Tale, Pantheon books, 1986 and Maus II: And here my troubles began, Pantheon books, 1992, won the Pulitzer prize in 1992, and subsequently gained Art Spiegelman an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York.

[18] Technically this was not the first extended length comic; they had been available previously but as anthologies of previously printed work. This was however the first time an original extended narrative had appeared.

[19] In the independents at this time it was still commonplace for the illustrator and the writer to be the same person.

[20] Mark Salisbury, Artists on Comic Art, Titan Books, 2000, pp. 176-178

[21] Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press (25th printing, 2003), 1985, p. 28

[22] Salisbury, Op. cit., p. 80

[23] The creation of the comic is broken down into different jobs for different people these are writer, penciler, inker, colourer and letterer.

[24] Stephen Weiner, The Rise of the Graphic Novel, NBM Publishing 2003, p.11

[25] Mark Salisbury, Artists on Comic Art, Titan Books, 2000, p.123

[26] Whilst this style had started with the Artists that began Image by the mid 1990s this style had become common place throughout the industry.

[27] George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945

[28] Robert Crumb, The R. Crumb Coffee table art book, Kitchen Sink Press, 1997, p. 247

[29] Art Spielgman, interviewed on “The Late Show”, BBC2, 12 October 1993

[30] Sabin, Roger; Comics, comix & Graphic Novels, Phaidon 1996 p. 9

[31] Stephen Weiner, The Rise of the Graphic Novel, NBM Publishing 2003, p. 61

[32] Marvel comics currently have thirty plus projects in the works at various Hollywood studios.

John is a long-time pop culture fan, comics historian, and blogger. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief at Comics Nexus. Prior to being EIC he has produced several column series including DEMYTHIFY, NEAR MINT MEMORIES and the ONE FAN'S TRIALS at the Nexus plus a stint at Bleeding Cool producing the COMICS REALISM column. As BabosScribe, John is active on his twitter account, his facebook page, his instagram feed and welcomes any and all feedback. Bring it on!