A lot of readers don’t like comics, or just can’t get into them, or can’t see what extra dimension comics add that works for other people. And I get it; there was a point where I didn’t really read comics, and in fact looked down on them as little more than picture books with extra dialogue (because teenagers can be snobs like that, and because I had some cognitive dissonance which allowed me to claim manga was something else entirely). But someone comments on one of my reviews today and asked what I like about comics in general, and I found myself wanting to explore it at some length.
I started reading comics really because of the MCU. I wanted more of Steve Rogers (“I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies, wherever they’re from”) — much as I loved him on the screen, that was only a handful of hours of time with him, and a lot of that taken up with explosions and supervillainy. I don’t think I particularly started with Cap comics, but I did mostly start with Marvel, where the character colours a lot of the narratives because he’s such an integral Marvel character — an instigator of Civil War, a moral compass, the leader of the Avengers. A mentor to the Young Avengers; a friend to so many others.
And then I found that in comics there was a whole lot more diversity, too. Female superheroes like Captain Marvel, whose translation to the screen we’re still awaiting. Gay superheroes like Teddy Altman and Billy Kaplan. Disabled characters like Vengeance Moth and Oracle.
I think that’s when I got hooked. For the characters. But also because comics could tell me more about those characters, and give my very non-visual brain more to work with: the way they stand, the way they move, the way they react. The bonds between characters which would be overstated if you took a paragraph to describe them, but which are explained so simply in a single panel of a comic.
It’s also worth noting that there are tons of really worthwhile comics which are not about superheroes, which is something people forget, because the words comics and superheroes have become so strongly linked. But there’s awesome stuff out there — The Wicked + The Divine, Bitch Planet, Saga, Rat Queens — which explores other kinds of worlds, and works like Maus and Persepolis which use the form to explore very serious, autobiographical subjects.
What really taught me to appreciate comics was Prof. William Kuskin’s MOOC, Comic Books and Graphic Novels. It’s a very rewarding course if you’re willing to engage with it, teaching you to dissect a page of a comic in just the same way you might a famous poem — understanding the conventions of the form like panels and gutters in the same way as you can learn to spot rhythms and couplets. It’s one thing to unconsciously be affected by these things, I find, and another to take a moment to realise how the page ratchets up the tension, how a particular artist has broken a convention or bent a rule to let the action explode out of the page.
Comics aren’t just novels with pictures — which is why I find the term graphic novel a bit disingenuous. It’s a whole different form, combining words and art, and I think it’s best appreciated that way. Reading it just for the words or the images and not for the way they combine to tell the story is definitely not the best way to experience them.
(And if it remains not your thing, that’s fine, just like it’s fine not to like poetry.)