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Why Comics are Art and Literature

by Kian Barker
This is a speech I wrote a while back. Enjoy!

Why Comics are Art and Literature

Kian Barker


I was always an avid reader, and I have forever read one type of book over all others. In fact, even the first book that I ever read was this type of book. I have, I am, and I always will be, a huge comic book nerd. I am even a comic book author and illustrator. But this interest and hobby of mine has never been taken seriously. I mean, look at the name. ‘Comic Book’ is a name that suggests, of course, comic relief. A friend of mine thought that comics are not literature, and to an extent, art. He told me that, in his opinion, they could not have the complexity, the layers of emotion, the depth and meaning, of regular books. And I think that is just untrue. Comics can be as complex and deep as books. And I will prove this to you today. 

First, we will be bitten by a radioactive spider full of information as we take a wall-crawling romp through the origin story of comics. Then, we will go up, up, away into the greater meaning of the comic book and use our x-ray vision to see through the notion that comics are trashy books for children. And finally, we will Hulk out and smash through the conclusion of all that evidence that comic books are art and literature.

After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker gained a huge understanding of the history of the comic book and the proportionate knowledge of a comic book nerd. Let’s use this understanding to thwip our way through the origin story of the comic book and strengthen our argument that comics are literature and art. 

The comic book is a fairly recent invention, but to understand it we have to peer into the history of the comic strip. On May 9th, 1754, the first newspaper cartoon appeared in Ben Franklin's newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. It depicted a snake cut into pieces and a caption saying ‘Join or Die’. Flash forward to the Golden Age of Comics, which began in June 1938, when Action Comics #1 starring Superman was released. Soon after, in October 1939, Timely Comics released the superhero anthology series Marvel Comics. 

In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published his bestselling book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’, saying that comics were corrupting the youth, and things like Superman is a Nazi (although he was created by Jewish men), and Batman and Robin promoted a homosexual lifestyle (because apparently if two men live in a house together, they’re homosexuals). Wertham encouraged kids and parents to gather their comics and burn them. Just like the book burnings in a totalitarian regime, these comics were burned because they didn’t fit with the ideals of the Government. If the comics did not follow the strict laws, they would be executed from stores everywhere. The history of comics really can mirror the history of books.

Up, up, and away we go! Comics seem like they are for children to many non-comic readers, but let us use our x-ray vision to see through this facade! Comics started as a way to tell funny jokes, with the first comic ever being Famous Funnies. People see comics as trashy, somewhat funny magazines, but the same could be said about great literary figures. William Shakespeare's works were laughed upon in a similar fashion. Like comics, stage plays were not taken seriously at the time. Shakespeare’s plays were laughed upon in his time, and it took until the 1800s for him to gain recognition as a literary star. Charles Dickens’ works were published as serial magazines, in short chapters, like comics are, and they were thought of as silly, throw-away soap operas. And we all know how Dickens’ stories gained international fame, and are considered some the best works of literature as well. 

Comics are the same story. Some comics stories are worthy of something such as… I don’t know... a Pulitzer Prize? Yes, that’s right, a comic can gain incredible literary praise, and one such comic is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The 1980 book tells the story of Spiegelman’s father as a Holocaust survivor. It uses the clever device of making the Jews in the Holocaust mice and the Nazi Germans Cats. It has incredibly deep themes and a sketchy and amazing art style. Other comics have won literary awards as well, such as: Hugo Award winner Ms. Marvel: No Normal. It is a comic that is about the first mainstream Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan fighting for Generation Z’s future. Sandman: Endless Nights, winner of a Bram Stoker Award, explores the Dreaming, a metaphysical dream realm. The Special Recognition Robert F. Kennedy Book Award of 2014 and a Coretta Scott King Award were snagged by the graphic novel March, written by John Lewis and illustrated by Nate Powell, it is a narrative story about Lewis’ experiences with the Civil Rights movement, and has deep racial themes.

And can you believe some people don’t recognize comic books as art? Man, that makes me angry! You won’t like me when I’m angry! HULK SMASH!! Into the topic of comics as art. Comics can tell any story that a normal book can. They can express visual metaphor like you know how books say things like, her tears flowed down her face like a river. In an abstract way, comics could display that through pictures, with a literal river flowing down the girl’s face. Comics also do make you picture things and engage the reader as much as normal books, as the reader must imagine the space in between the panels and the amount of time a panel takes. For example, a larger panel may signify a larger amount of time taking place, and vice versa.  Comics have as many possibilities as traditional books. Many genres of comics exist, as do genres of books, such as superhero, sci-fi, LGTBQ, war, punk, and horror. People may associate comics with a goofy art style, but some amazing artists make it so much more, for example, Alex Ross, paints every panel in a traditional and realistic style. Comic writers can also make their books better, with their amazing understandings of the medium and its full potential. From the writers and the artists to the characters they create, comics are definitely more than they are perceived to be by non-comic readers. So with that, I hope that you are convinced that comics are art and literature. Maybe next time you’re in a bookstore, you can check out the graphic novel section. Thanks for listening! Excelsior!



Ramsay, Taylor. “The History of Comics: Decade by Decade.” The Artifice, The Artifice, 2013,

Unknown. “The Yellow Kid.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Feb. 2019,

Unknown. “Comic Strip.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Feb. 2019,

Chute, Hillary. Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere New York: HarperCollins. 2017.

McCloud, Scott. Making Comics New York: HarperCollins. 2006.

Potts, Carl. The DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics New York: Watson-Guptil. 2013.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. New York: Pantheon Books. 1980.