I've wanted to write something like this for a while--my version of "Why Comics Matter" or "Why I Read Graphic Novels".
My answer's tied to some history, though. History and censorship and underground industries. (Oh! And if you're interested, scroll to the bottom for a list of the Comics Code Authority regulations that had controlled the comic book industry for more than 45 years.)
Raising Low Art
It's the 1930s and, in America, the Great Depression has struck hard. What was once a search for the ritz and glitter epitomized in Fitzgerald's greatest novels has now caved to struggle, suffering, and dust--lots of it--stuck in a Steinback novel and a broken American Dream.
Literature has always served as mirror and window to our own worlds. A lot of literary criticism would tell you Fitzgerald saw the collapse of the 20s before stockbrokers did.
So where do comics come in?
They've got roots in 1700s Japan, sure. A scattered few in 1830s Europe. When it comes to the US, there was a prototypical comic book translated from French in 1837 called The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck. Afterwards we got what's hailed as the first truly modern American comic, Famous Funnies, which read exactly as you'd expect.
These histories may have set the stage, but the actors that led the comic book show to fame were superheroes, and a lot has already been said about them. In times of struggle, be it Great Depression or war efforts, people leaned on superheroes as escapism and hope, using their brightly-colored spandex narratives to code personal anxieties, politics, and fears. Not much has changed, from Superman and his Jewish creators in the 1930s, to the 2010s Kamala Khan, to Wonder Woman's first big-screen appearance last year.
These superheroes, of course, have also helped build an opportunity for comics to tackle more traditionally "respected" themes, things like autobiographical accounts of war in Maus.
I'm not here to argue one over the other, by the way. Campy "low-brow" or high-art textual and graphic interplay. They've both got merit. If you were to glance at my library, you'd find not only a whole big section on dystopian YA and 18th century gothic dramas, but you'd find stacks of caped crusaders (mostly Teen Titans or Young Justice), and Adrian Tomine's realistic fiction (hailed the Raymond Carver of graphic novels), and Belgian artists' Les Cités obscures with its distinctly art nouveau influence.
You'd also find textbooks. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (duh), Holderen's The Origins of Comics, and an account of the American Civil War in graphic novel format. Oh and, for the record, these were textbooks for college courses.
In a lot of ways, the transition of graphic novels from lowly art to scholarly media followed that of the novel (which was seen in England as a crude means of entertainment to replace the more nobler pursuit of poetry). I could rant a lot about the social implications of what does and does not constitute art--from animation to genre fiction to comics--but that'll be a topic for another post.
Creating the Underground
When you ban media or hope to ban it, when media is called "inappropriate," whether it be To Kill A Mockingbird or Persepolis, that means it's shaken someone. It means that ideas are being challenged. Comic books aren't some unique case in being banned. Movies, tv shows, and books get the complaints just as much. I think it's the symbolism that's so hard to ignore though. A medium that had been popularized through championing heroes for the forgotten, against fascism, falling to censorship laws through to the 21st century.
There are plenty reasons why comic books matter. You can argue from history, education. Whatever it may be.
I think, for me, comic books matter because they are so debated. "Yes, they're literary, but only some kinds, like Maus, not like that bisexual Wonder Woman who I also very much don't want my children reading." "No, they're trash and even thematically challenging narratives have too much pornographic content that coincidentally is one page in a three issue discussion about mental illness."
This medium is easily dismissed as nonsensical or lowbrow or merely a gateway for reluctant readers to find more refined literature, then in the same breath it's battled the longest known code of regulations (film was censored through code for 44 years; comics went from 1956 to early 21st century).
Comic books and graphic novels are contradictions. They're dismissed as unimportant, branded as morally corrupt. They're vigilante heroes and victims of war crimes. They're images. They're text. They're the hidden fighter you didn't expect would challenge societal norms, filled with silly cartoons; then they're the hidden fighter that the established authority feared will change societal norms.
Personally, I'd say that's where the interesting stuff happens.
A List of Regulations Imposed by the Comics Code Authority...
...in case you guys were curious. More information can be found here, and I've bolded a few creepy and/or interesting ones. I kind of want to go further into these--about how they overtly and subtly target minority groups--but I'll leave it alone for now. Let me know if a few catch your eye! I'd love to hear your thoughts!
General standards—Part A
All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited. Dialogue
So there you have it! I hope this was as interesting for you to read as it was for me to write! Trust me, there'll be more on graphic novels. Until then, let me know some of your thoughts on comic books or the regulations!