Comic books and graphic novels have given the public its most famous and beloved superheroes. Everyone has heard of Batman, Superman, Thor, Captain America, and numerous others. Superman, the oldest of these heroes, made his debut to the public in 1938 in Action Comics #1, and has been entertaining the masses ever since.
Comic books, while remaining a beloved medium of rhetoric and entertainment, have often been equated to children’s books or television, lacking the type of sophistication and intellectual heavy lifting that is valued in Western academia.
Western academics value texts that require analysis and deep thought to be understood by a reader and degrade the use of images in a text because they are thought to be unsophisticated. This degradation of images has led to the denigration of comic books and graphic novels as valuable forms of literature.
The images within comic books and graphic novels have to convey passage of time, movement, and meaning within a series of images with a relatively small number of words. There is a lot of thought and sophistication required to create the images within a comic book and to understand those same images when reading.
Inventive, intricate images and advanced thought processes are what constitutes the visual rhetoric that is so heavily relied upon within comics books and graphic novels. The image can be altered by adding different things to it. A flag on fire may give an audience a feeling of anger. A flag laying over a casket gives the audience a feeling of sorrow and loss. The same image can mean multiple things based on the cultural meaning of those images and how the image is manipulated.
The same applies to comic books. According to Robert Dennis Watkins’ doctoral dissertation, “Sequential rhetoric: Teaching comics as visual rhetoric,” comics are defined as, “‘arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea’, that ‘employ[s] a series of repetitive images and recognizable symbols’ that when repeated becomes a language”.
The combination of image and dialogue is the same as how we perceive and view the events of the world around us; all we have to create meaning from is people’s language and how they perform that language. Comic books are so effective at creating immediacy and presence because they attempt to mimic how life happens to us and how we perceive life happening around us.
Comic book writers write the dialogue of a comic but also write paragraphs and paragraphs about what the corresponding image should look like in each panel for the comic book artist. Brian K. Vaughan and Alan Moore do an excellent job of bringing the reality of the comic book into the reality of the audience through the visual rhetoric of the comic.
In Brian K. Vaughan’s ongoing comic, Saga, he writes about two lovers, Alana and Marko, and their daughter, Hazel, and their experiences while on the run from corrupt governments, mercenaries, and intergalactic war. Vaughan uses this comic as a medium to discuss the importance of family and the wasteful destruction of war. In issue 36 of Saga, panel 52 shows an image of Marko hugging Hazel.
Without any context, this image shows a man hugging a young girl; if you look at the image closely there are a few minor details that give even more feeling to the image. The young girl’s feet are positioned in a way that indicates she ran to him even though the panel before this one shows an image of Hazel before she ran.
The audience never sees her running into her father’s arms. Marko has both arms wrapped around Hazel while the item he has been carrying is on the ground; this shows that none of the material items he had were as important as holding his daughter again.
If this had simply been a father coming home from work, he would not have taken the effort to get down at Hazel’s level, and he probably would not have dropped the items he had in his hand. The intricate details in this image give the message that this is a reunion that has been desired by both characters for a long time.
This image has cultural meaning through the use of a hug because our culture associates a hugh with warmth, affection, family, and love. There is also a personal and cultural association with reunions between family.
Images would have no meaning for the audience if they had never seen or felt a hug, and this depiction of a hug would not mean anything to the audience if they did not know what family was. That image and the feelings attached with that image allow the audience to let go of the anxiety created by the panels preceding it.
Comics have to show ideas more than they have to describe ideas, and it takes a lot of creativity and thought to make that happen. It is a sophisticated creation that a child might not necessarily appreciate, but an adult definitely can. Comic books and graphic novels have a lot more value in reading than most of the public knows, making them literature that should be read readily and willing by all.