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Revision: Classics and the Comics

December 4, 2006

A few days ago I enthusiastically posted about classics being made into comics. After an e-mail exchange with a colleague, I think I need to qualify that enthusiasm. My caveats are best exhibited in that exchange, so I’m scrubbing my friend’s name and posting it here. He/she began:


[Your piece] hits a nerve. The use of comic books in core undergraduate English composition and literature courses does a terrible injury to students. Unfortunately it is a fad that has led a growing number of faculty to imagine themselves to be pseudo “cutting edge” by assigning their students ten page research papers with eight secondary sources on the topic of Batman, Superman, the Flash and so on.

Anyone thoroughly familiar with the profound significance one receives from mastering civilization’s greatest masterpieces, knows the study of comic book heroes robs students of the time and opportunity they desperately need. Like what? For one, to learn how to analyze complex problems and not campy platitudes. For another, how to raise their powers of concentration and their stock of important ideas and problems by reading books that have stood the test of time, something comic books can never impart. For still another, how to gain a knowledge of allusions to events and people central to civilization through the epochs which comic books never present them.

I teach inner city undergraduates who arrive culturally illiterate and severely undereducated and to do nothing more to enable them to be relieved of these handicaps than teach comic books is in my view professional negligence. I would ask anyone who thinks comic books are appropriate for core undergraduate courses to pick up one and attempt to sustain one’s attention span and intellectual curiosity and respect through page 3.

The “gateway” idea you mention I have also heard but applied to college students. College is a place where serious and complex knowledge is supposed to be presented and mastered–with hard work. There is already a pre-credit industry to help students learn to read and write at the college level which does not depend upon pictures to teach reading and writing. The flaw with the gateway idea is that it has the terrible effect of prolonging the postponement of helping students to learn how to read and begin thinking about the most important stuff, stuff that has stood the test of time, stuff which students have in mind when they come to college in the first place.

Gateway theories have the effect of making this postponement indefinite and will certainly contribute to students never getting the skills they need to transfer to a four year institution or get a better position in the workplace, where there is little demand for reviewing and creating documents with nothing more on them than word balloons and four color figures in circus clothing.



“Dear _____,

I think that comic books could be “gateway literature” to the real thing. But certainly I would NOT advocate trading the lesser for the best of the best. No way. In fact, I’m going to reread my post to double-check whether one could get that impression.



I am talking about students who are arrive in college coming from environments–both home and school–where reading was never done. To then waste another opportunity and perhaps their last one, I consider obscene, a crime. If one were to suggest that in an art history class students spend most of their time looking at comic books instead of at the great masters or in a classical music class listening to pop music with the idea I would like to think most people would laugh. But in English and literature the emphasis is and has been away from serious reading. The new trend is experiential learning which means having students do social work instead of the reading they would otherwise be assigned in that time. I would also argue that comic
books will result in reading skills that never grow and a philistine’s ridicule and rejection of high art which they remain untrained to understand and whose profound and transformative essence will remain forever beyond their awareness.



“Dear _____,

I totally agree with you that even ‘classics comics’ would be a waste of time for any student from a disadvantaged background that’s trying to get a leg up, to get smart, via higher education. It sounds like we’re on the same page, because I certainly wouldn’t advocate classics comics for high school or college students. But artwork does catch the eyes of late elementary and middle schoolers. The article on which I commented does not give an age range. Again, perhaps I should go and caveat my enthusiasm for comics in the post.

Your note leaves me bummed about some of the kinds of pop culture/literature/english types that may be in our cc’s. I hope your observations are not indicative of any widespread trends. If so, we should put “literature” in quotes when it comes to [some of] them. Sigh.

Thanks for your lengthy reply, and for making me clarify.



From → Uncategorized

  1. Anonymous permalink

    We wouldn't compare Steven King to Chaucer, so why would we compare Stan Lee to Shakespeare?

    These exchanges mention only “classic” comic books created by the likes of Stan Lee and his disciples (Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc.) and completely neglect many of the more complex and cerebral examples that exist today. If you must engage in this debate, it seems like it would be more…fair? relevant?….to use the works of Marjane Satrapi, Neil Gaiman, or Art Spiegelman as points of comparison.

    Ultimately, your conclusions may be the same. But either way, it is disingenuous, incomplete, and/or uninformed to limit the discussion to Marvel Comics.



  2. Anonymous permalink

    Another thought (sorry, this came to me only after I posted the previous entry):

    Should film studies also be seen as “dumbing down” our students? Film couples speech with images, as well. For every 30 “Rambo's” made, there is an “8 1/2.” Seems a shame to neglect the latter to spite the former.



  3. Alexis,

    Thanks for the posts! Your concerns about our exchange are fair.

    My original post, based on a Chicago Tribune article, was most definitely about more cerebral examples – graphic novels, if you will. My colleague's concerns centered on quality, and certainly his/her observations and reflections are based on the Marvel Comics form of “comics.” If the new works mentioned in the Tribune article contain text that's close or identical to the great books on which they're trading, then I think my colleague's concerns are unwarranted. We should then view those new works as simply enhanced, and not at all dumbed down. As I noted in my original piece, artwork has enhanced my own imagination and understanding of certain great books.

    Film studies could only be seen as “dumbing down” our students if the films used are bad – just as Marvel-type comics are not well done.

    In sum, I agree with your observations – even if my colleague doesn't. – TL


  4. We wouldn't compare Steven King to Chaucer, so why would we compare Stan Lee to Shakespeare?

    Why wouldn't we? Shakespeare wasn't a tortured artist creating works for his own aesthetic satisfaction: he was a professional, an entertainment industry executive (we'd call him today), a serial plagiarist (though wonderfully selective in his sources) and polemicist. Yeah, it's great work, but it wasn't created to be “classic literature” and it was only preserved and revered because it was popular.

    He worked in a relatively new medium, like Stan Lee; both created works which were popular with many different classes and communities, and scorned by intellectual elites; both created characters and themes which resonate and are recreated and adapted long after their original appearances.

    I'm not suggesting that we abandon Shakespeare studies, but that we put them in something like a realistic historical context, and do the same for our own culture. Great literature has always been repackaged, sometimes in new genres, sometimes as pastiche, sometimes as variations on a theme which becomes cliche.

    There's great value in “struggling with greatness” but there's also value in enjoying the literature and history which we believe has value.


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