Back in high school I qestioned my teacher?s required reading choices. Why did I have to read The Great Gatsby or John Milton?s Paradise Lost? Who decided what students should read in school? Later in college, I learned the required reading lists and all the classic literature was determined by people who wanted to curb student readings to fit a specific idea or agenda. Did a book fit the historical progression of Western society and is that reflected in a written form? There is your classic. Need to show diversity or gender equality within the list? Throw in a dash of Jane Austin and maybe one or two James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Gabriel Garcia Marguez. But college was different. Yes, there were the classics, but then professors also assigned modern authors like Louise Erdrich and Crystal Wilkinson. One classmate did a senior paper on The Hunger Games Trilogy. All of this to say, literature can be anything, that includes graphic novels, manga, and comic books.
Many people will disagree. How can a book of pictures and minimal description and dialogue possibly be literature? The same way plays and film can be considered classics. It?s an art form that has something to say about the world it was created in. Maus by Art Spiegelman is a graphic novel, yet it is considered a classic by many teachers around the country. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi holds similar recognition as an autobiographical graphic novel. If these two can be recognized as worthy of the title of ?literature? then why aren?t others in this art form given a similar examination?
While the Batman comics may not have much standing for literature on their own, the history of the comics does reveal an interesting commentary on the American society. The many eras of comics are dependent on the social expectations that they are found in. From fighting humans, to monsters, and back to villains, with a modern focus on the psychological, comics demonstrate a history of the art form and censorship. Why else would Batman?s Joker transform from an organized mobster with a thirst for violence to a trickster thief and finally to a psychotic anarchist? Because the society deemed what was acceptable for readers at those times.
Manga has a similar problem. This form of graphic novel originated in Japan and is heavily influenced by Japan?s history and culture. There has also been a surge of manga from Korea and China, each rooted in their home country?s culture. Yet readers do not need to understand the long history and social intricacies of these countries to learn something from these books. Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba details the story of a seventeen year old student, Light Yagami, who is given the ability to choose who lives and who dies. While Light claims he is using this power to rid the world of criminals, the police see the killings, attributed to a serial killer called Kira, and launch a worldwide hunt for the criminal. Light?s use of this power, his manipulation of the people around him, and his eventual decent into madness raise a moral dilemma for the readers. Does the end justify the means? If you, the reader, were given this power, what would you do with it? Does killing hundreds of people to prevent future crimes absolve the perpetrator of their own crimes?
A similarly dark manga is Tokyo Ghoul by Sui Ishida. This one expands on the themes put forth by Franz Kafka?s Metamorphosis. The protagonist awakes to discover he has been turned into something not-human. Keniki, now a ghoul, has all of the memories and life experiences of a human, yet is now a creature forced to feed on humans. Hunted from both sides because of his unique transformation, he has to reconcile the two sides of his character and figure out how to live with himself in this new world.
On a lighter note, Fruit Basket by Natsuki Takaya explores the idea of family and fate. The heroine Tohru?s interactions with the secretive Sohma family allow its younger members to question whether they truly are cursed by fate told or if they can choose their own lives without fear of the outside world or repercussions within their homes. The individuals do not have to be punished for the actions of their ancestors and they can accept themselves and each other as people and not as a symbol of past wrongs.
Graphic novels offer a wide range of experiences for their readers, whether it is an examination of the history of a genre and censorship, biographies, cultural appreciation, moral dilemmas, or uplifting ideas of choice and fate, writing off this art form for being ?not literature? is a disservice to its writers, artists, and readers alike. Even if it doesn?t appear on a list next to Poe or Bradbury, graphic novels should receive as much examination as any other form of literature.