Comics get no respect -- but they should

John Weddleton

For 20-something years, I've had a comic strip on my office wall. The first panel shows a fellow holding up a framed painting for a well-coiffed critic who throws up his hands with joy, exclaiming, "ART!" In the next frame, he holds a leather-bound book. The critic sings, "LITERATURE!" In the last frame, he holds another creative work with words and pictures together -- a comic book. "Worthless TRASH!" the critic snorts.

All comic retailers know this strip. That critic is the boogie man we've been battling for years.

I don't know where that attitude came from. Comics have mostly filled the role of light entertainment since the style of writing started with the Yellow Kid in the 1890s. There's nothing so wrong with a fun read that it should get such disdain. Plus, there were serious comics. The most powerful stories in any form against Jim Crow and the Klan were in EC comics in the 1950s. And it was profound when Captain America busted Hitler's chops on the cover of issue No. 1 back in '41.

Maybe it comes from the perception that comics are kids' stuff. Smart kids don't need pictures to read, right? What a sad misunderstanding. The art and the words are both integral parts of the storytelling. They work together like no other style of writing can. There is no limit to how good either can be.

OK, busty babes on the cover might be part of the problem. No mom wants to buy little Billy a comic with a gal barely contained in her skin-tight outfit. But this reaches back to heroic storytelling older than "The Odyssey." These stories are bigger than life. Good vs. Evil at the extreme. And besides, take a look at the cover of a romance novel. Moms buy those like crazy. It's too bad that a few comics turn people off from all comics. There's a whole world of comics beyond superheroes.

Sometimes I think the flimsy format of a comic book has been the problem. Not a book. Not a magazine. Each issue is usually like one chapter of a book. It's a lame reason to scorn the format but maybe this is the core problem. The rise of the graphic novel confirms this to some extent.

A graphic novel is like a "fat comic." Most are reprints combining six to 12 issues of stories that came out first as "floppies." A graphic novel usually has a full story with beginning and end, unlike the serial nature of a comic book. For people used to reading books, a graphic novel feels right. I see people who won't read a comic book coming in looking for graphic novels. This works for me.

Besides being a nice format for reading, graphic novels hit a price point where they can be warehoused, distributed and promoted like a book. That means there is more money in it for creators and publishers for a longer time than with a "floppy." "Watchmen" sold great as a comic in the mid-1980s. When the 12 issues were repackaged as a graphic novel 20 years later, the real money was made, as it sat on The New York Times best seller list month after month.

This opportunity to make more money has drawn more writers and artists to comics. The result is not so much better work but a greater variety of stories. Stories for all ages. Stories for all interests. There's even a locally produced graphic novel telling Alaska's history. It's a great time to be a comic reader.

The Anchorage Public Library makes it easy for you to try out the format. They carry loads of graphic novels, and this year's Anchorage Reads book is "The Complete Persepolis." It's a powerful story, great history and total entertainment. And it's a graphic novel.

I got tired of battling narrow-minded critics years ago. To heck with them. Some stories are too big for just words. Read a comic book today.

John Weddleton owns Bosco's and has been selling comics for 25 years.