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Seduction of the Sophisticates

March 30th, 2005 · 2 Comments

Jeet Heer has a nice piece on the intelligensia’s shifting view of comics from the Toronto Star. But it seems there’s something missing here:

Since then, we’ve seen an ever-deepening appreciation of the form. Comics are now studied in the academy, archived in research libraries and lavishly reprinted in expensive collector volumes. In one Toronto high school, they have been used for the past three years as part of a successful program to boost literacy. And the recent rise of the graphic novel and manga (Japanese comic books), not to mention the recent massive success of Hollywood films based on comics (Spiderman, Spiderman 2, Hulk, Ghost World), has only strengthened the form’s cultural importance.

Yet surveying the long history of intellectuals and comics, we shouldn’t assume that this current resurgence of praise will be permanent. As we’ve seen, intellectuals are fundamentally divided about the worth of comics, and there is always the possibility of a backlash.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between recognizing something as meriting academic study and approving of its currency in popular culture. Film students study Leni Riefenstahl; that doesn’t mean people wouldn’t be rightly dismayed if fare resembling Triumph of The Will in more than technical skill started breaking box office records. But more importantly, this idea of a swinging pendulum of opinion about “comics” seems to elide the fact that we’re often talking about a fairly radically different sort of comic now. Say what you want about The Yellow Kid or early superhero books, there’s no very serious comparison to be made between them (as either visual art or literature) and, say, Watchmen or Sandman or even Joss Whedon’s run on X-Men. Danielle Steele and Vladimir Nabakov both wrote novels, but I don’t think your reaction to them ought to be governed by some uniform view about “the novel” as a form. Indeed, lumping all this stuff together, I think, fails to take the comics form, and the range of which its capable, sufficiently seriously.

Tags: Art & Culture



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 fyodor // Mar 31, 2005 at 12:21 pm


    Your point about comics being different now is valid and vital. Yet at the same time, doesn’t this raise a “chicken or the egg” type of question? After all, something HAS changed SUCH THAT serious artists will make use of the comics idiom now when they would have been very likely to in that earlier period. Maybe such movement by artists themselves should be viewed separately from movement by the intelligensia in its mass form, wherein it takes on its “stamp of approval” function, and perhaps Jeet Heer fails to make this distinction (haven’t RTF). But still, unless one feels that such a movement among artists per se can occur in a vacuum, the very fact that comics have changed in the way you describe must reflect a corresponding change in attitudes, whether or not the change necessarily moved with equal speeds among the artistic class and its sisters the critical and mass intelligensia classes.

  • 2 hb // Apr 4, 2005 at 1:50 am

    I think a key to where comics are going would be in the latest Kramers Ergot anthology, #5, blending the medium with fine visual arts, not with literature. Get your hands on it if you can.