“Graphic Novels Are Not Literature”

“Graphic novels aren’t literature; they’re art.”

To some, comparing graphic novels to traditional literature just doesn’t make sense. How can a book that is so heavy on images be studied like a traditional novel?

That question may leave those taking Currents in Global Literature this semester confused, since a copy of Persepolis is listed as required course material. If the class is called Global Literature, why are we reading a graphic novel? How can a graphic novel be put on the same plane as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? 

Shouldn’t a graphic novel be, like, in a different course or something?

Here’s the deal:


But to understand this, one needs to know exactly what literature is. More specifically, the difference between literature and Literature (with a capital L) needs to be explained.

What is literature?

To many, the word “literature” invokes the image of a musty, tattered Jane Austen novel sitting decrepitly on granny’s bookshelf.

But the textbook definition of literature, lower-case “l” literature, actually encompasses a whole lot more than that.

The bare-bones, Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of literature is this: writings in prose or verse.

But hey, doesn’t this mean that a sign can be literature? Can the back of a cereal box be literature? What about the comic you wrote in 2nd grade: is that literature?

Our common sense says, “Nope, not literature.” And we think back to the dusty copy of Pride and Prejudice. But the dictionary can’t be wrong! Or can it?

The truth is this: all writing can be literature, but not all “literature” is “Literature”.

What is Literature?

Putting it plainly, capital-“L” Literature is used to reference books deemed worthy of scholarly study. These are the books you see in a classrooms, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, or Animal Farm. 

But how are a Southern lawyer, a millionaire, and a group of farm animals at all similar, and why are they studied?

The answer goes beyond the bare content of their stories. Each of the above novels comment on the culture in which they were conceived. Themes such as racial injustice, the American Dream, and political oppression lie beneath the narratives. These are also the themes of society. And while they may take a different form, they still relevant in the present-day.

That’s why these novels are studied. That’s what makes them Literature.

Graphic Novel Display” by AlbertHerring is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Graphic Novel: lit or Lit?

Now that the difference between “lit” and “Lit” is clear, we can recreate the original question: Why are graphic novels being studied in a Literature class?

By our original definition, we know that graphic novels do qualify as bare-bones literature, simply because they contain prose. Not only that, the words written in the novel are as integral to the story as the images. Without one or the other, the book wouldn’t be a final product. Taking out the pictures or the text would leave a garbled mess of a book.

But is it Lit? Well, images don’t dilute the literary value of a graphic novel. That being said, not every graphic novel is going to be considered worthy of study (don’t expect to see Captain Underpants in a college classroom), but that goes for ALL works of literature, not just graphic novels.

A graphic novel can contain the lasting value seen in great works of literature. Today, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Stoker’s Dracula are studied not just because they have enthralling stories, but because the stories reveal something about the author’s culture. They are artifacts that indirectly give a glimpse to the societal views and concerns of the past. Looking at Persepolis, which details the Islamic Revolution through a child’s eyes, we can see how a graphic novel encompasses the values of “Literature”.

So don’t be surprised if you see a graphic novel on your course list or (hint, hint) as the subject of a Special Topics in Literature course this spring! These books can be just as rich and timeless as anything else we would consider “Literature”.

Still not convinced? Add your feedback in the comments section!

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