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Comic Books Are Literature

Contrary to popular belief, comic books are in fact literature.

It seems that comic books, but superhero comics in particular, have earned a reputation of being immature, or as a classmate said,”low brow.” I disagree completely.

While super hero comics may seem bright, flashy, and immature, they are often disguising more serious themes through the cheery art style and the costumed heroes.

It’s often easy to miss these themes when they are hidden in comic books. But they are there. Some are more subtle than others.

For example, when broken down, Batman is the story of a traumatized man who lost his parents to gun violence. He turns to vigilantism when he feels the police have failed him. He is just as mentally ill as some of his super villains and that is a fact which is not kept secret. Joker often remarks that they should be sharing the same cell. Joker is Batman’s most infamous villain, but many others exhibit signs of mental illness, including Harvey Dent, Riddler. The list goes ever on. And the truth of the matter is that Bruce Wayne himself is a traumatized, mentally ill man, and his comics discuss the horrors of mental health, behind the mask of the bat.

Superman and Captain America, albeit written by rival comic teams, both take a special place in the world of symbolism. Both characters were made by Jewish men at the height of the 40s, as anti-Semitism grew in Germany. While Snyder’s Man of Steel film compared Superman to a Christ-like figure, the character is surrounded by Jewish iconography and symbolism. The letter on his chest is a Hebrew character, and the “El” suffix used in many Kryptonian names comes from the “El” suffix in Hebrew which often denotes God or other major religious figures. And even then, Jesus was Jewish.

Captain America, on the other hand, stands for what America should be, especially in the throes and horrific discoveries of World War II. In fact the original storyline of Marvel’s Civil War had Steve Rogers standing up against the Registration Act. His firm stance on it was not a statement on government control in the movie, but a statement on human rights, as he remembered what had happened the last time a registration program had been drawn up.

When discussed for what they are, do those three plotlines sound “immature” or “lowbrow”? Or do they sound like stories that are worthy of our attention?

I could stop with those characters and say that the point is proven, but it would be doing further injustice to comic books as a whole.

Because X-Men are inherently an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement and for all disenfranchised people. Stan Lee stated that he was curious about what would happen if humanity hated super heroes and thus likened it to the cry for civil rights that was on going at the time. While they may be mind readers, pyrotechnics and weather controllers in yellow spandex suits, they are a stand in for disenfranchised minorities.

The first film version of the X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer, addressed the LGBTQ movement with the character of Bobby Singer, or Iceman.

“Have you ever tried, you know, not being a mutant?” She asks, when Bobby reveals his powers for the first time.

It’s a scene all too familiar, “Have you ever tried not being gay?” is what she may as well be asking her son, right after he comes out of the closet.

She goes on to lament that her son is a mutant and blame herself for it. John aka Pyro, interrupts by saying that they have found that the gene is carried on the male line, so technically, it’s Bobby’s father’s fault. If the scene was the exact same, except with the word “gay” instead of “mutant,” it would be a coming out story that is all too familiar to audiences.

X-Men was designed to be the perfect allegory for any marginalized group or person and even after creator Stan Lee’s death, it continues to do so. It is an injustice to the work of these comic book artists and storytellers by claiming their work is “lowbrow."

There is a reason, after all, that the “weirdos” and other outcasts have flocked to comic books in droves. If you doubt the numbers, go to your local comic convention and see how many people of various different shapes, sizes and colors attend.

These stories are mainly the work of Jewish men who started in the shadow of WWII, and who wanted to tell thought provoking stories. The stories are not lesser because they are told in comic books. These stories are not lesser because they are told in allegory. They are not lesser because they contain less words than The Great American Novel. They are a completely wonderful, valid, way of telling deep stories. That is what literature is and comic books are in fact, literature. 

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