I recently read Hannah Miodrag’s “Narrative, Language, and Comics-as-Literature” from Studies in Comics (2.2 (2011): 263-279), in which she argues against the common way “literary” is used in regards to comics. Most often comics are considered “literary” because of qualities that are not inherently about language: well-structured narratives, sophisticated plotting, strong characterization, rich themes. These are all factors that tend to highlight the divergence of “literary” comics from the historically more prevalent types: pulp/genre comics and comic strips. Literary is taken up in this way as a sign of quality. Miodrag, on the other hand, notes that “literary” should be about literary uses of language, as all these other factors are not solely within the purview of literature (any narrative form could have all those qualities, and I might add that this focuses on comics as narrative which they are not always). Of course, comics critics/theorists often have their own issues with discussing text in comics, as so many consider text to be (and it has historically been) the lesser element, subordinate to images (as friend of the beard Allan Haverholm recently argued). She goes on to examine a number of comics for their use of language, including astute readings of a few Lynda Barry comics. I’d recommend searching out this article. I’d also recommend Studies in Comics itself–the two issues I’ve read have had a number of good articles in them (I’ve since subscribed)–as well as other articles by Miodrag. I’ve been fortunate enough to read some longer work by her and was duly impressed with her theoretical arguments and her close readings of specific comics.
It so happened the next day, The Comics Journal posted an interview from the archives with Moore, Gibbons, and Gaiman. The introduction to the piece (from #116 (July 1987)) perfectly encapsulates what Miodrag noticed:
“a comic series [Watchmen] employing literary techniques — such as layers of theme and plot inherent in each issue, the intricate and precise attention to detail evident not only in the writing, but also in the artwork, and the desire to portray the genuine crises the world faces today…”
Not only are non of these techniques inherently “literary”, but the first one is more a particular trait of comics themselves (“in each issue”) than literature (though not unique to comics as one can easily apply it to other serialized forms like television (Mad Men is especially good at the thematically unified episode)).
Maybe it’s time to give the words some more attention.