Sunday, May 4, 2008

In Praise of Comic Books

By Ed Smallwood

Free Comic Book Day came and went yesterday without much comment from me, excepting a brief mention in a recent blog entry. I actually do consider this an important day of the year. This day may not be as important as paying attention to our parents, or remembering our veterans, or remembering the achievements and suffering of Union members, but it is in fact the only day backed by industry that helps with literacy. Think about that for a minute. One day a year you can get a free book. It may not be the latest Stephen King book, but that may not be a bad thing.

Comic books have been maligned in our culture for a long time, often as the lowest form of entertainment--probably because they have historically been produced on the cheap. While this can still be true today, it is more often the case for the major publishers that comic books are very well produced and literate popular culture magazines.

Every week I have been trying to write at least one, and often two, complete essays. This takes me as little as 4 hours and as much as 40 hours per essay in research and editing, which is one of the reasons I like to republish my “Brown-bagging as gas saving measure” essay. I can put in an hour or less of research and bring it right back up-to-date. Now, considering the work I put into one essay, I’m trying to imagine putting in a similar amount of work to produce a work of fiction writing. Now throw in 32 pages of drawings, all of them inked and shaded. I know I would find that amount of work to be staggering.

It really is no surprise that so many of the better comic books are being produced as movies. One of the first things that most movie producers and directors do is commission a set of story boards to visualize the movie, and really story boards are so similar to a comic book it really doesn’t make sense to put them in different categories.

While it is difficult to disapprove of the artistic merits of a comic, many people are unimpressed with the basic literary narrative value of them. When I was very young, I loved comics, almost any kind I could get my hands on. As I got older I moved on to novels, magazines, and newspapers. I began to believe that comics were strictly for children and the immature. I was humbled several months back when a co-worker loaned me the trade-paperback copy of several volumes of Marvel’s Civil War series of comics. In this series, the U.S. Congress passes a law making it illegal for superheroes to keep their identity secret. One group, led by Tony Stark (Iron Man) follows the law and starts hunting down superheroes who refuse to follow the law. A second group, led by Captain America refuses to follow the law.

At one point early in the series, Spider Man asks Captain America why he is fighting the law when everyone is aware of his real identity, and Captain America quotes from an essay by Mark Twain that I was not even aware of. I was so impressed by the relevancy of the excerpt, placed in a comic book in an alternate universe where nobody would notice it, that I had to look into it further. It took hours of work, but I managed to find a longer excerpt at a website called "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Nachos" (you can find it online at I am reprinting here the passage from that website until I can find a longer version.

Here it is:

Against our traditions we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people, and for a base object — robbery. At first our citizens spoke out against this thing, by an impulse natural to their training. Today they have turned, and their voice is the other way.

What caused the change? Merely a politician's trick — a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads: Our Country, right or wrong! An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it in every schoolhouse in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag.

And every man who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor — none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, "Our Country, right or wrong," and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?

For in a republic, who is "the Country"? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant — merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is "the country?" Is it the newspaper? Is it the pulpit? Is it the school-superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn't.

In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country — hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Only when a republic's life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it is in the wrong. There is no other time.

This Republic's life is not in peril. The nation has sold its honor for a phrase. It has swung itself loose from its safe anchorage and is drifting, its helm is in pirate hands.

It becomes difficult at best to impugn the literacy of comics when you have that kind of content.

It is for these and other reasons that I heartily recommend that next year you take time to celebrate Free Comic Book Day. I am nearly certain that you will not be able to visit a Hallmark Store and get a free card any day this year, and even if you can, it is unlikely to have the same literary impact, or be as relevant to our current political situation, as that one passage above. And who knows, you may even enjoy the free book.

But then, why wait a year?

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