Comics Are Cool: Why the Genre Is Finally Getting the Respect It Deserves from Academia


The Lowenstein Plaza was transformed into a makeshift bookstore for the “Graphica in Education” conference. (Kisha Claude/The Observer)

Published: February 12, 2009

As I sat in Pope Auditorium listening to a group of panelists discussing “The Power of Graphica,” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Sure, I thought much of the conversation was valid, but for the umpteenth time that day, I was hearing the same questions coming up. “What’s the difference between a graphic novel, a comic book, sequential art and illustrated books?” “How do you explain these differences, if there are any, to a child?” I had an answer, though I bit my tongue.

On Jan. 31, the Fordham University Graduate School of Education (GSE) hosted a conference for educators, librarians and any other interested parties titled “Graphica in Education: Bringing Graphic Novels Out from Under the Desk.” Though the topics varied from one workshop, lecture or panel to the next, a common thread was not only how to use graphic novels and comics in the classroom, but as mentioned, how to identify and explain these materials in the first place. Personally, I was surprised to find a need for such discussions at all, since I’ve found my peers are quite accepting of the genre as a legitimate art form.

Although I used to cringe when it came time to admit to my peers or elders that I was a comics fan, this response is slowly ebbing away. At long last, the stigma once associated with the genre seems to be all but extinct. But what has prompted this change in our society? This is one question I wish the “Graphica in Education” conference had addressed.

Traditionally, comic books have been considered a form of low art and so were typically dismissed by academic institutions. However, this trend has begun to change in the past few decades. Since the late 1970s and the release of more serious material, such as Will Eisner’s graphic novel, “A Contract with God” in 1978 and the definitive limited comic book series “Watchmen,” published in 1986, the general public has gradually accepted that this medium can be a legitimate artistic endeavor. This viewpoint has been validated by the integration of comics and graphic novels into library collections, the use of the materials as teaching tools and exactly such conferences as “Graphica in Education.”

In my experience, the younger you are, the more accepting of the genre as legitimate you seem to be. Other young adults are noticing this trend as well.

“I think that most people [my age] are [indifferent] to my reading comics. My parents usually are the ones who think ‘Aren’t you too old for this?’” said Alex Rabinovich, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’09.

This was reflected in one of the workshops I attended, called “The Comic Book Project.” This workshop was designed to illustrate how children and pre-teens can create comics as a method of self-expression. The moderator of the workshop and founder of the Project, Michael Bitz, had several samples of student work on hand, and many addressed serious topics, such as smoking and drug use.

Such thought-provoking topics have been the basis for comics and graphic novels in the professional realm as well. The variety of subject matter addressed in comics and graphic novels is likely a reason for the diminishing stigma once associated with the genre. Whereas comics were once limited to the adventures of superheroes, serialized pulp stories or Archie and friends, today anything from the day-to-day existence of a video game nerd (the “Scott Pilgrim” series) to neurotic retired superheroes (“Watchmen”) to the Holocaust (“Maus”) to the “9/11 Commission Report” is fodder for comics creators.

“Graphic novels are now being accepted as social commentary. On an academic level, they can offer an alternate history, like ‘Watchmen’ does,” said Matt Conlin, FCLC ’09.

The genre has also received more critical attention as a storytelling medium that employs both images and text.

“[The comic genre] presents a unique challenge to artists, who are called on not only to create beautiful images but also to compose and arrange them in a way that tells a coherent story,” said Tim Price, FCLC ’09. Books like Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” and Will Eisner’s “Comics and Sequential Art” are proof that comics as a medium is a subject for serious scholarship.

Jon Sciezska, the first National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature and author of children’s books like “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” and “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” made an astute observation during his address to the “Graphica” conference attendees—that comics have often been marketed as a “gateway drug” to reading “real” books. He claimed it was a “disservice to the genre,” since it undermines its validity as an independent medium by implying that just reading a graphic novel is not enough, one should also be reading “real” books.

Fordham students seem to agree. “People need to start opening their eyes and realizing that comic books are a form of storytelling, not a genre, and that some of the narratives they weave are just as complex and interesting as other media,” Morano said.

“The reason why [graphic novels] can be looked at critically in an educational setting is because they still have the same parts as most literature,” Rabinovich said. “A comic is only good if it has strong themes, a good plot, characters that appeal to the reader, etc.” Indeed, isn’t that what we expect when we open up a traditional form of literature, be it Shakespeare or Steinbeck?

In an era of the global village, tolerance is becoming widespread in every realm. Even President Barack Obama is a long-time collector of Spider-Man and Conan comic books. Now who’s going to make fun of that?