Saturday, May 13, 2017

Great (Comic) Books

At the outset of this post, I need to do something I neglected thus far: give credit to the person who initially inspired me to take on this endeavor of blogging, which I have been enjoying immensely. That person is my good friend Chad Pulver, who thought this would be a good intellectual outlet. Thanks for planting the idea with me, Chad!

Now, as promised, for this edition I wanted to talk a little more about comics. Specifically, to what extent can we consider comics "literature" or even include them within the hallowed academic category of "Great Books"? To start with a story, a few years ago, while my wife was away at a conference, one of the quiet activities I planned with my sons was to read a Justice League comic series called Tower of Babel we'd picked out from the public library. (The cover is pictured below.) 

Written in 2000 by Mark Waid, the story opens with each member of the Justice League being attacked in ingenious ways by henchmen of the eco-terrorist Ra's al-Ghul. The strikes are devised to either exploit a League member's weakness (such as Martian Manhunter's vulnerability to fire) or brilliantly turn a strength against him or her (for instance, by making Aquaman petrified of water). The League recovers (of course) from these physical assaults, but the emotional wounds prove more difficult to overcome, for the original author of these plans was not Ra's al-Ghul, but a fellow league member: Batman. Over the years, and in complete secrecy, the Dark Knight crafted these stratagems against his teammates as contingency plans in case any should go rogue. Though the League overcomes Ra's al-Ghul's plot, they are incensed by Batman's actions (for which he is unrepentant) and vote to expel him from the League.

My sons were enthralled by the story and immediately set about debating whether the expulsion was justified. We ricocheted from question to question. Did Batman's schemes qualify as betrayal if he was not the one to implement them? Isn't teamwork -- not to mention friendship -- based on trust, and if a person shows he does not completely trust his teammates, should he be part of the team? On the other hand, with beings as strong as Superman and Wonder Woman, wouldn't it be wiser to be prepared for the worst, just in case?

After about twenty-five minutes of such discussion, we moved on to the next points on our busy schedule: a dart gun fight, followed by frozen pizza. When the boys were in bed later, I thought back on our conversation and how similar it had been to discussions with undergraduates. In my teaching career, I've had the great fortune to teach in a Core Curriculum where we dealt with great works of world literature, using them to debate timeless dilemmas and moral issues. Was Aeneas right to leave behind his lover Dido, to choose duty over the heart? Who is the real monster, Dr. Frankenstein or his creation? Like Plato suggests in the "Allegory of the Cave," should we always choose a hard truth over a comfortable lie? When faced with the impossible decision of fighting his family or dishonoring his duty, what should Arjuna do? And of course, there's Machiavelli: Is it better to be feared or loved?

The question that came to mind for me that night, which I broach here with you, dear reader, is whether Batman and his kin belong among such esteemed company. Tower of Babel helps us by putting on display all of the psychological complexity that makes Batman a fascinating character. His genius is obvious in the various schemes he has devised, yet so is his hubris in deeming himself above the judgment of his teammates. Like Oedipus or Macbeth, an otherwise heroic character is laid low by a tragic flaw, which in the Dark Knight's case may be a complete inability to trust.

So is the presence of debatable moral issues and analogy to other literary figures enough to include comic characters and their stories in the list of "Great Books"? Definitions of what makes a "Great Book" are hard to come by. The Association of Core Texts Conference defines them as "world classics" (talk about begging the question) or "texts of major cultural significance": St. John's (in Maryland) is one institution famous for its "Great Books" curriculum (, but they don't provide a definition for exactly what it takes to get in the club of the "Great Books," just a list of the readings. This list contains the usual suspects: Aristotle, Dante, Locke, Shakespeare, etc. Besides leaving out more modern popular culture, this list (and others like it) seems to suggest that no one in Africa, India, China, South America, or basically any non-European location, ever wrote a "Great Book." The implied definition seems to be "old or ancient texts forming a part of Western heritage." Besides the Euro-centrism, does age necessarily connote relevance? Granted, Superman and Batman have not even been around for a full century yet, and Spiderman and the Hulk for even less, but given the amount of media attention and the variety of works devoted to these characters, couldn't we classify some of their more seminal outings as "texts of major cultural significance"? Or, let me offer another possible definition for "Great Books" that might help alleviate both the Euro-centrism and ageism: "a text that raises or dwells on lasting questions of what it means to be human." From this perspective, we might be able to put Arjuna alongside Achilles, as well as Machiavelli alongside Batman.

By that definition, then, we have to let at least some graphic novels, like perhaps Tower of Babel, into the club. From firsthand teaching experience, I can speak to the rewards for doing so. About a year ago, I taught a course on mythic figures of evil to an uncommonly talented group of undergraduates. We read Paradise Lost, Buddhacarita, The Golem, and The Ramayana, among other texts, and had some great discussions. To show the persistence of the tropes we'd analyzed, the last work we read was Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, an especially thoughtful meditation on the Batman/Joker rivalry. While I'd thought that the conversations to that point had been good, we hit a whole other stratosphere with that book. It was a pleasure to simply watch these accomplished students dissect the symbolism, creatively apply the semester's categories, and debate the notion of "monstrosity," all in relation to a graphic novel. At that moment, the course content seemed the most real to all of us. Talk about "cultural significance"!

For fun, let me know what other specific graphic novels you think might be worthy of "Great Books" status. Whether they are ever widely acknowledged as "Great Books," I think they are certainly fodder for great conversations. I'm sure my students -- not to mention my sons! -- would agree. Next post we might talk about another academic/cultural category I've been considering problematic: the "world war." Let me leave you with a live video for my current favorite song: Coldplay's "Something Just Like This." It's entirely relevant, too, as the first verse seamlessly blends Achilles and Hercules with...Spiderman and Batman. (At least Chris Martin gets it.) Take care!


  1. If you're accepting crossover storylines as great books, I'd say marvels civil war would fit this criteria for me. Some spoilers follow if you haven't read it.
    Having Captain America go against the governments decision and choosing personal freedom for the other heroes above law, is a big deal for marvels Boy Scout.
    Among other story elements throughout the series. Like Spider-Man's allegiance and the punisher being the voice of reason at one point.
    Even the point when they ask the X-Men to help and they kinda laughed at choosing sides since none of the other heroes helped with the mutant registration act.

    1. Yes! I absolutely agree. That series would be high on my list, too. It raises a number of central questions (like freedom vs. order). You can also tie it to a specific social context, since it's pretty obviously commenting on the Patriot Act in the aftermath of 9/11.


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