Over the years I have gotten into quite a few debates with various teachers over the merits of comic books. When I was young most teachers and learning institutions that I encountered viewed comics as pulp entertainment. I, having grown up in a comic book store, disagreed with this assessment. Even now with increasing awareness of the potential of the comic book medium it is rare to find teachers that are open minded enough to explore the possibilities of comics.
According to my current English textbook (and the Oxford English Dictionary) literature is "writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect." Currently, Norton anthologies on literature cover a wide range of writing forms - short stories and poetry from modernists, romantics, politicians, beatniks and everything in between. In recognition of the fact that many literary movements were accompanied by counterparts in the visual arts, some of the anthologies also include an art gallery. I find it ironic that scholars can accept art and writing separately, as something of deeper value, while still denying an art form that combines these disciplines a place in the classroom.
I started thinking about this topic last week while reading the poetry of William Blake. We were asked to write an analysis of one of his assigned poems for my British Literature class. I choose "The Tyger", and found in my research that most poetry scholars agree that Blake's poems take on new meaning when examined side by side with the art it was originally published with. Blake apparently considered his art more important than his words and consequently published much of his poetry not only with pictures, but within them. Blake was creating comics, and yet until recently every time we covered Blake in a class it was only his words, removed from their corresponding pictures.
I suppose the point of all this, is that I feel that there are some comic books that deserve to have a place in our literature curriculum. Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Sandman, Mage, The Long Halloween... the list could easily go on. Sandman even has a companion book that was published in order to help the reader understand all the intricate layers of Gaiman's tale. If literature is truly, "writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect" than surely comic books are worthy of consideration. The fact that their stories are accompanied by artwork only provides the art form with more potential.
I think it's time that comic books are recognized by the educational community - not only are comics a great way to engage an increasingly apathetic society in the act of reading, but many stories told in this medium are as important to literature as the contributions of Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Dickinson (to name only a few).
So enjoy your comics, but the next time you come across a story that is beautiful in form and leaves a lingering impact, realize that great storytellers aren't restricted to words alone.