Comic Books: the Good, the Bad, and the #*&%^*@

Saturday, May 4th, is Free Comic Book Day, and I haven't decided whether or not to tell the kids.




It's a little nutty that so many parents in the video felt the need to make a special effort to pass on their love of comic books to the next generation.  I mean, I like cookies, too, and I would be sad if my kids went through their childhoods without ever enjoying cookies; but I don't recall that they needed any particular urging to discover and pursue this form of culinary expression.  They introduced themselves to cookies just fine.

Anyway, it's relatively new for parents to even tolerate their kids' comic book tastes, much less encourage it.  Comic books have been making adults nervous from the get-go -- and not without cause.  (Note:  I'm going to conflate comic books and graphic novels here, because I'm not convinced there's any difference besides length.)

You used to hear, more often than you do today, that comic books are bad because they make kids stupid and lazy -- that it's a sin and a shame for kids to sit around reading comic books when they could be playing baseball, helping their mothers, or reading actual literature.  Nowadays, you're more likely to hear parents grateful that their kids are reading at all, rather than spending the day hunched in front of the Xbox.  But anyway, for parents who still do worry that kids who read comic books will soon begin to read nothing but comic books:  it's a real concern, if you have that kind of kid.  But other kids are perfectly capable of reading comic books sometimes, and good literature at other times.  It just depends on the kid.

(The same applies, I suppose, for adults who enjoy comic books and graphic novels:  it's fine, as long as it's not all you read.  Confession time:  I'm too big of a snob to read comic books or graphic novels (or maybe I'm just too lazy:  I'm usually lying down when I read, so if I'm going to go to all that effort of turning a page, I'd like to be on that page for more than a few seconds), so I don't get the appeal.  I find it hard to respect an adult who reads nothing but graphic novels; but I've seen enough cultured, intelligent people who enjoy them, along with regular books and art, that there must be something there.)

The other complaint you used to hear -- and which is even more valid today than it was fifty years ago --  is against the actual content of comic books:  that the world they portray is disgusting, lurid, seedy, and unwholesome; that they show women with ludicrously pornified bodies and outfits; and that they portray violence as a hero's first and only response to evil.  And in fact, I went into one of our local comic book stores one day, and left immediately, swearing never to bring my kids inside that place.

Of course, only some (maybe most) comic books are like this; many are not.  Whether or not you're happy that comic books have become so pervasive, you have to admit one benefit of their spreading popularity:  they've really branched out, in style, in content, and in intended audience.  You really can find comic books or graphic novels that will appeal to people who are neither sexist nor gore-happy nor morons.

Furthermore, there is a backlash, at least in some quarters, against the sleazier side of comic books.  We see males satirically portrayed like typical hypersexualized female superheroes here and here, to point out the absurd contortions comic book women are subjected to.  We see people imagining more modest (and functional!) costumes for female superheroes.  At least people besides the Ladies Censorial Sodality for the Perpetually Outraged are talking about these things.

And we see people doing genuinely interesting things with graphics.  There are genuine artists at work in some comic books.  (I was alerted to this possiblity when I read Michael Chabon's fascinating novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay).

And in many ways, the comic book genre (and the accompanying superhero movies that show no signs of drying up) makes a safe place for 21st century people to discuss things that have become somewhat outré to handle in straight novels and movies.  So two kids arguing about the difference between Batman and Superman's motives, their relationship with the city and with their parents, and whether or not someone's heroism is affected by inborn qualities or technological assistance?  You could do worse.

And then there's manga, which I always accidentally type as "mango," which shows how knowledgeable I am about it.    My 15-year-old daughter (who has no tolerance for sexy stuff or nonsense in general) is really into it (and she still reads actual books).  So, who knows.  I'm old.

What's been your experience with comic books and graphic novels?  Are you for 'em, or agin' 'em?  Have you changed your mind from one point of view to the other?  Can you recommend (or warn against) a series? -- and if so, for goodness sake, tell us why.  Okay, go!  Zam!