Comic Art: The Seduction of the Innocent
In 1991, at the 13th Annual World Fantasy Convention, an issue of the comic book series The Sandman was selected by a panel of experts in the field as the Year's Best Short Story. This was not the first time that a comic book has been nominated for a prestigious literary prize (the first and only previous one being Art Spiegelman's retelling of the Holocaust in animal fable form Maus for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987), but it was the first to have won. The ensuing uproar at the awards ceremony and the umbrage that many took at a mere comic book winning instead of a standard-print story resulted in the rules of the awards being changed. Henceforth, no comic book could be nominated, much less win.
Like the people at the World Fantasy Awards in 1991, most of us would not think that a comic book could reside on the same level of artistic creativity as a paintings, epic novels, poems or concertos. Were the eminencies at the awards right then, in rejecting the notion of The Sandman as literature? For the comic to have been selected, by a panel of blue-ribboned experts, no less, surely there has to be something in The Sandman to render it worthy of the honour of receiving the award.
For us to understand what it was about The Sandman that caused such a reaction, indeed, such fear, we have to know what, in the first place, a comic is. When we speak of "comics" we generally mean either the funnies -- comic strips in the newspapers - or of superheroes, spandex optional, who fight crime and save the world on a regular basis. The comics can be loosely defined as "a narrative in the form of a sequence of pictures - usually, but not always, with text" (Sabin, 5). A graphic novel, such as The Sandman is commonly classified as, is a "one-shot book form publication involving a continuous comic narrative, of a scope that is longer than a normal comic" (Sabin, 235). But as Neil Gaiman, writer of The Sandman once remarked at being told that he did not write comic books, he wrote graphic novels, that it was like someone being "informed that she wasn't actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening" (Bender, 4). This person, the editor of the literary review pages of a major newspaper, had "obviously heard positive things about Sandman; but he was so stuck on the idea that comics are juvenile he couldn't deal with something good being done as a comic book. He needed to put Sandman in a box to make it respectable" (Bender, 4).
What makes comics different from the 'respectable' fields of literature or fine art? Comics rely on a combination of words and pictures to bring across a message, to tell a story. To even use the medium is an exercise in creativity itself. The possible combinations of text and pictures are endless, and to create a coherent meaning and consistent tone of narrative from the manipulation of text boxes, word and thought balloons, panels and artwork is no easy...