Comic books in popular culture and art

Comics, often disregarded as entertainment for children, are varied and valuable texts.

Peter Lennon
26th March 2022
Image: Flickr

TW: Suicide

Since the release of The Dark Knight and Iron Man in 2008, comic books and graphics novels have become an increasingly intrinsic part of popular culture. Unfortunately, the obscene success of screen adaptations, particularly seen in the multi-billion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe, has led to but a trickle of commercial and cultural recognition for the medium itself.

Comic books have often been unfairly regarded as entertainment for children. I say “unfairly” because every other artistic medium also facilitates a child’s audience – it’s hard to imagine a world without children’s books, films, and television series. As such, the adult market for the medium continues to be incredibly niche, in spite of the on-screen success. The comic books that do break into the literary canon are often referred to as graphic novels. I imagine this as an equivalent to the recently popularised term “elevated horror”, disassociating so-called canonical work with a medium that self-esteemed “intellectuals” are otherwise embarrassed by.

Image: Amazon UK

Works such as Watchmen (1986-1987) by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colourist John Higgons and Maus (1980-1991) by cartoonist Art Spiegelman are two of a select group to have solidified their place in the western canon, brandished on the bookcases of academics across the nation. Do not get me confused and believe that I am being dismissive of these canonical works – they have pierced these boundaries for a reason. Instead, I hope to encourage a wider audience for a medium that is as varied as any other.

While DC Comics and Marvel continue to be the biggest publishers in the industry, there’s an expansive collection of monthly released titles and trade paperbacks that will fill any genre itch you may have in your search for new fiction.

While DC Comics and Marvel continue to be the biggest publishers in the industry, there’s an expansive collection of monthly released titles and trade paperbacks (comic book issues collected as volumes) that will fill any genre itch you may have in your search for new fiction. Recently, Indian writer Ram V finished his limited five-issue series The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, which follows the titular character in Mumbai, exploring the boundaries between life and death.

This theme of existentialism can also be found in Tom King and Mitch Gerard’s award-winning limited series Mister Miracle, a darkly-comedic sci-fi drama that deals with the titular character’s depression and coming fatherhood after a suicide attempt. The series is visually striking, using 9-panel grids that are intermittently interrupted by Television static, as well as talk-show host panels implemented to explore the character’s psychology. This is a personal favourite of mine as the series makes full use of its medium to arrange images both psychedelic and all-too-familiar in its examination of masculinity and men’s mental health.

Despite my decade-long love affair with the medium, I only found the words to coherently explain how these comic book texts are able to affect me quite recently.

Image: Amazon UK

Despite my decade-long love affair with the medium, I only found the words to coherently explain how these comic book texts are able to affect me quite recently. In fact, it was my personal tutor who recommended that I read Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. In this text, McCloud works through a definition of what a comic book is – how we distinguish a comic book from other art and art forms – and how all the different elements (panels, lettering, splash pages) operate to inspire different emotive reactions. The best thing about this work is that it’s a comic book itself! McCloud explains while demonstrating, making for a light, yet incredibly informative read.

I have met many people who have wanted to start reading comics but find the comic book world of superheroes (some characters have nearly 100 years of continuous story history) to be too intimidating. While my advice for superheroes is to start with standalone classics (Batman: The Long Halloween etc.), you can bypass this entirely by selecting self-contained limited series, of which there is an abundance of each year. Like any other art form, comic books have their own annual awards show called the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. There, one can find a curated list of the best annual series, each with their own styles and generic forms.

Of course, lists and curations can only do so much. At the end of the day, the only way to start is to start. Go to your friendly neighbourhood comic book stores and book shops, talk to the staff about what you’re after, and they’ll steer you in the right direction. After that, it’s up to you – safe travels on your new journey through one of the world’s most underappreciated art forms!

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AUTHOR: Peter Lennon
English Literature undergraduate. Although I primarily write for the Courier's Film section, I do love helping out in the Televsion and Gaming sections as well. I also organise and host livestreams/radio shows as FilmSoc's inaugural Head of Radio. Twitter: @PeterLennon79

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