Unpacking comics: Literary gems in disguise that are more than just entertainment

Published on 12 March 2024
By Team Catch
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From Asterix to Archie, Naruto to Persepolis, comics have been around for decades to entertain and draw laughter from audiences through a combination of words and art. 

Some comics are super short, like the world’s most beloved Monday-hating orange cat. In 1978, Garfield made his debut as a comic strip in 41 American newspapers, the brainchild (or braincat) of cartoonist Jim Davis. Iconically, our favourite cat with an attitude continues to charm audiences today. 

Others are far longer comics, captivating different audiences. Since the 1930s, serialised comic books following the likes of Superman, Spider-Man, The Scarlet Witch and more have delighted readers with witty dialogue and out-of-this-world preternatural abilities. 

Collage of Superman and One Piece comic books

Comics continue to captivate globally, transcending languages! Image credits: DC Comics and Comic Vine

No matter the length, entertaining content sells. By 2022, Superman comics had achieved approximately more than 600 million in sales, or about 7 million copies a year since its publication in 1938. That same year, Japanese manga One Piece also hit more than half a billion copies sold—proving that non-western comic books, too, have found success. 

 

But popularity and commercial success does not make it a literary masterpiece. Despite their huge entertainment value, the question remains: Do comics have literary value—offering   something deeper and more substantial than just a good read? 

What makes a work “literary”?

The original 1925 cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby: A timeless classic enchanting readers with its tale of love, wealth, and tragedy. Image credits: BBC

Just like how some people ooze “street cred”, some works boast “literary cred”—earning genuine respect from the bookish crowd thanks to their unique qualities. 

 

The Great Gatsby belongs in this category. Published in 1925, the book clocks a mere 177 pages in its Penguin Modern Classics edition, and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the 20th century. It is a staple reading for literature students everywhere that follows the tragic tale of the young and handsome Jay Gatsby as he grapples with love, opulence, and the darker side of 1920s America. 

In comparison, far fewer comics have achieved the same level of “literary cred”. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to a graphic novel for the first time only in 1992, with American cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale bagging the award for its depiction of the Holocaust.

 

Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye graphic novel


The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye offers a unique perspective on Singapore's political, social, and cultural evolution, blending fact and fiction. Image credits: Kinokuniya

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the term “graphic novel” was adopted by publishers in the 1980s as a more respectable alternative to “comic”. Taking a page from this book, Singapore followed suit shortly after. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was the first graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize, and did so only in 2015.  

This may be because comics are typically viewed as visual mediums with fewer words, setting them apart from conventional books due to their unique blend of various formats. But that would be turning a blind eye to their storytelling skill and the craft behind combining words and images together. 


Comics are like movies on paper, the blending of pictures and words take you on a fun and emotional ride. Unlike books or movies, comics need the right mix of art and storytelling to give you an overall easily-digestible yet immersive experience. This opens up more possibilities and requires more technical control.

Who gets to decide what is “literary”? 

Comic strips were originally meant for children, leading to the assumption that they were less sophisticated, less complex, and all round less serious. 

If the Peanuts series with its cast of iconic characters, from Charlie Brown to Snoopy, has not already disproved this line of thought, the fact remains that the comic genre today is replete with plenty of material targeted at adults. And they are more accessible than ever before, from the webtoon Lore Olympus to popular manga series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, which can be read online.

A collage of Singaporean graphic novels, Work-Life Balance: Malevolent Managers and Folkloric Freelancers and Goh Keng Swee: A Singaporean for All Seasons

Dive into Singapore's graphic novels, unravelling tales of work dynamics and political history! Image credits: The Straits Times and Epigram Bookshop

Many even function as social commentaries. For example, Work-Life Balance: Malevolent Managers and Folkloric Freelancers by Singaporeans Benjamin Chee and Wayne Rée reflects on soul-sucking work environments and hellish bosses—and features a cast of ghoulish characters, including pontianaks, manananggals, and ba jiao guis

Some graphic novels also shed light on political history. Goh Keng Swee: A Singaporean for All Seasons by Cheah Sinann and Felix Cheong sketches the life of one of Singapore’s pioneer leaders, responsible for Jurong Bird Park, Sentosa, and the Singapore Armed Forces.

While it's true that the comic genre has its fair share of misses, it's important to remember that low-brow and "non-literary" content doesn't define the entire medium. Such material exists in every genre, and that includes prose, drama, and poetry. 

So, are comics literary? Like the craft itself, the answer is not simple. Just nuanced.

Top image credit: Data Comics

 

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