Can Comics be considered 'Serious Art'?
NEW DELHI: Comics have been a pervasive element of pop culture for many years. While the history of comics has followed different comics in different parts of the world, the advent of the serialised comic form was concomitant with the inception of the printing press in the nineteenth century. With its beginnings in periodicals and newspapers as a humour centric content, comics have evolved to include narratives of war, vigilantism, and even philosophy.
As a pop-culture genre i.e. one that’s mass produced and mass consumed, comics have often been relegated to the fringes by art critics critics. However, this question of what can be classified as ‘serious art’ (which for the rest of the blog will include literature as well) is part of a larger and long-withstanding debate among art critics. Before the invention of the printing press, art was an elite man’s hobby. It was a barometer of one’s social class and, thus, popular art forms were never given the same space in the canonized genres. For instance, Shakespeare’s plays were to the intellectuals of his era what Bollywood movies are to contemporary art critics. The ubiquity and popularity of pop culture challenged this cultural authority insulated by class and education.
Comics as a genre is quite malleable. While it is largely visual driven, as a format it can range from a single comic ‘strip’ to an entire series to even a novel. In fact, the internet has sprung a new version of this genre - the Webcomic which as opposed to the traditional comic can be self-published on blogs and social media platforms like Instagram.
In India, comics have been a popular medium for retelling mythologies. Several Indian artists have also taken to the art form to depict controversial and sensitive issues. For instance, Priya’s Shakti, created by Ram Devineni, is a superhero and a rape survivor who combats the prevalent issue of sexual violence and harassment in India and around the world. Devineni was inspired to create Priya’s Shakti after the horrific 2012 New Delhi gang rape. The comic also made waves for its layered and futuristic approach to storytelling. By scanning the comic book with an augmented reality app called Blippar, users can view animation, real-life stories, and other interactive elements that pop out of the pages.
Comic stories are continuously retold, often embellished upon, and shared among various new artists and reinterpreted. This has resulted in characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman achieving a folkloric quality. It seems almost certain to me that going forward, every father figure will most likely tell their children about Spiderman and other heroic figures featuring in comics. What can be noted then is that such stories are not merely lost once read but carry on through the ages just like folk stories and poems. They were reinterpreted in different ways, dubbed into many different languages and circulated all across the globe. Universities are not unwilling to admit that comics are sophisticated enough for further study. For example, The University of Florida has positioned itself as a premier institution for the study of comics as literature.
Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature not only blurred but erased the line between “high” and “low” culture for reading, writing and other creative activities. So, perhaps the more appropriate question might be, “Why can’t comics be considered art?”