So I think it’s best to get this out of the way up front. I used to be one of ‘those’ people. You know the ones. The type who dismiss superhero movies as the indulgences of overgrown children with a penchant for tights. The type who recoil in something akin to horror when anyone mentions D&D stats openly, as if it’s not a shameful secret best saved for behind closed doors. The type who roll their eyes when anyone even references Star Wars. (Actually, to be honest, I’m not so sure this one is a bad thing). And worst of all, the type who sneer at comic books as a form of ‘literature’ best reserved for eight year olds, Americans and 40 year old men who still live with their parents.
Picture the scene. It’s the end of the nineties and I’m a fresh faced undergraduate, reading books by Satre and De Beauvoir and waving my English Literature studies around as proof of my wise and profound nature. In spite of this, I seem to have somehow ended up surrounded by Mathematicians and Computer Scientists and people who say things like ‘hypertext transfer protocol’ without even a trace of irony.
One enlightened individual in particular simply refused to stop banging on about how comics, or ‘graphic novels’ as he more frequently called them in what I assumed was a futile re-branding exercise, were an art-form in themselves. And as such, full of limitless, exciting possibilities. No matter how many times I tried to hold up my freshly bought copy of War and Peace as some kind of defense against this nonsense, he insisted in particular, that I give some series called the Sandman a whirl.
So reluctantly, practicing my scathing and witty criticism before I’d even opened the first book, I took some time out from my heavy, 5 hour a week schedule (it’s tough being an arts student) and gave it a try.
Neil Gaiman’s iconic series was first published between 1989 and 1996, so it’s fair to say I was late to the party even back in ‘99. But late or not, and despite my valiant efforts to dismiss it, from the very first reading it was pretty evident that only an idiot would be declaring this kids' stuff. The series focus on Dream, one of the Endless, and his troublesome siblings, Delirium, Despair, Desire, Destiny, and the surprisingly un-emo Death, with her cute goth girl guise.
I was instantly transfixed, more than anything else because of how smart it was. Gaiman is an intellectual, no doubt about it, and as such not above a little showing off. The series encompass references to everything from classical mythology and Christian theology to Shakespeare, as well as all of the really big ideas that writers and philosophers have struggled with since time immemorial. The words and pictures that make up Sandman allow Gaiman to perform a kind of alchemy, and there really is something a little bit uncanny about the scope of the universe he creates and manipulates. But more than any of this, the format of the storytelling, the comic book or graphic novel or whatever the currently trendy moniker is, enhanced it. It wasn’t great in spite of being a comic book. It was great because of it.
And just like that, any of my pretentions that comic books somehow couldn’t be art simply fell away. Even a language fetishist like me could see that there was something pleasingly thrilling about a story telling medium that didn’t have to follow the sentence after sentence conventions of the literature I was used to. And the more I opened my mind to the possibilities, the more I realized that the liminal state that comics occupied, gave them the scope to be more subversive, more creative, and dammit, even more intellectually worthy, not less. Like anything, there are good examples of the form and bad examples, but the more willing I was to look, the more I began to find the amazing, thought provoking, and deeply enjoyable stuff that was out there.
So, yes, I am no longer one of ‘those’ people. And these days, I’m happy to denounce anyone who dismisses comics out of hand as an ill-informed snob. I do still roll my eyes when people mention Star Wars though…
Kate Townshend has that Friday feeling. Even now.