April 18, 2002

On the Wire

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In relatively recent years, the comic book industry has widened its scope from heroic comic books of juvenile fancy to illustrative stories of valor, courage, history, and education. These comic books are the same old paper and ink creations, yet the topics that they cover consist of anything but the same old content that categorizes our favorite comic books. Along with superheros or our goofy friends who brought us laughter in series, such as Archie and Jughead, their content traverses themes and issues never before explored in the comic book form and are specific to our culture.

A comic book in response to the September 11th attacks tackles issues that are new to the comic book medium. Entitled Heroes, Marvel Comics published its tribute comic on October 16, 2001 in response to the deplorable attacks on the United States. Similarly, other comic book tributes dealing with this same tragedy have sprung up after the attacks to pay tribute to those heroes, both dead and living, who are now immortalized. A New York Times article quoted comics pioneer and graphic novelist Will Eisner on the subject of these various tribute comics: “I’ve been waiting for the graphic novel or the use of comics for serious material to be accepted, and here for the first time, this medium has dealt with a major event.”

Nevertheless, this is not the first time that a comic medium has aptly dealt with the subject of traumatic memory. Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a two-part publication, explores the Holocaust in a similar medium, and has been the focus of my own senior thesis project at Cornell. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Spiegelman’s work delves into tragic tribute by way of the postmodern form. In a compelling tale of his father’s experiences in Auschwitz, Spiegelman explores the memory of his father’s experiences through the allegoric depictions of the Jews, Nazis, and Poles as animals. Thus, by creating a harrowing tale contrasting the levity of the comic medium, Maus serves as a precursor for more recent attempts at the comic tribute.

Through this artistic form, the postmodern structure of literature can develop to its fullest capacity. Authors and artists are granted a sense of poetic license that allows them to develop these ideas through unconventional forms and reach their audiences on various perceptual and emotional levels. The broader tale of Spiegelman’s Maus explores the author’s relationship with his father and thus grants the author and the audience accessibility to his father’s nightmares through the comic book form.

These new forms of media have imparted an accessible venue for an audience to experience the traumatic repercussions of issues, such as the Holocaust and the recent attacks on our nation. Imparting equanimity to word and image in a visually dependent culture, comic books have begun a new wave of literature that is as “postmodern” as the new media technological craze of recent decades.

This week’s Entertainment Weekly links readers to a website in conjunction with Michael Chabon’s comic, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which will soon be made into a movie. Although I have not read this comic marvel, the Web site, members.tripod.com/martinetc/id102.htm, seems to be the Cliff Note dictionary for the comic book. This website helps to define the mysterious words that consume the comic through a game that helps readers discover the extensive vocabulary of the comic book’s creator.

Composed of fifty-four words, this game allows visitors to the site to match these random words to their definitions. Perhaps some would have never guessed that strabismus is a “disorder in which both eyes cannot be focused at the same time, such as cross-eyes, or a squint?” Or that the word meaning “pestering, bothering, boring” is nudzhing? This vocabulary game, according to Entertainment Weekly, “serves double duty: word nerds can use it to gauge their smarts — and the verbally impaired can use it as a cheat sheet,” and shows the vocabulary expertise of the author.

The educational level of Chabon’s comic book seems as if it coincides with the educational benefits of both Maus and the various September 11th comic book creations. Thus, as a genre, the comic book has become an influential source of literary power — a source of media in which the time-honored connotation of purely “child’s play,” has subsided. By introducing the visual to the textual and the textual to the visual, a postmodern visual culture finds it perhaps easier to relate to tragedy and such historic traumas. The comic book, a time-honored medium of farcical fun has entered the realm of “new media,” as the visual accompaniments that it applies to these serious, historical, and educational topics makes these topics ironically more realistic.

Perhaps these authors and artists can be called “pamphleteers,” which according to the afore-mentioned site, means “writer or publisher of booklets, ephemera, or screed-pieces on topics of current interest.” These comic book creators are doing exactly that — they are visually stimulating a society to engage in cultural and intellectual thought using a medium that seems all too accessible to our era. Thus, as this new genre gains predominance, the “comic” becomes adversely serious and compelling.

Archived article by Barbara Seigel