Why Read Comics?

Let me take a time out to address a very basic question, one that’s brought up all too frequently, and that is: Why read comics?  To people who haven’t been exposed much to the medium of comic books, it seems like they’re a waste of time, that they’re “juvenile” or they’re entertainment for dumb people of limited imagination. For them, the question becomes, why read comics when I can read a book instead? Books in our culture, in comparison, seem smarter, more adult, more challenging, and, ultimately, more rewarding. This is a view I’d like to go ahead and challenge.

First, let me point out one big factor: most of us aren’t reading books either. A few years ago I heard a highly disheartening statistic: the average American reads 1 book a year. I don’t know what the reading rate is today, but I can only hope it’s higher. For myself, a year with only one book sounds horrible–worse, even, than a year without rain or a year of captivity (prison libraries make being locked up not seem so bad). Unless that books is Ulysses or Moby Dick, which I highly doubt, then a year where only one book is read is a frightening thought.

When asked point blank why people don’t read, the answer I hear the most often is “I simply don’t have the time.” This sounds plausible enough, especially for adults who work full-time and have families to raise. However, the national statistic of how many hours a day the TV is turned on in homes is 6 hours and 47 minutes. 99 percent of homes have TVs, and the average home has at least 2. In light of these sobering statistics, it seems the “no time” excuse is entirely fatuous.

Am I railing against TV itself? By no means! I watch plenty of TV; just yesterday, I streamed five episodes of The Simpsons on my laptop, plus watched the most recent Breaking Bad on demand. However, as much TV as I watch, I still manage to read at least one book a week while working full-time. On top of that, I read at least a handful of comics weekly, sometimes more if I’m particularly excited by a series.

It seems to me a big reason why many Americans don’t read books is because, after a day of work, the activity is draining. TV, on the other hand, doesn’t ask much. It requires no thought to watch most prime-time shows. Law and Order, in case the viewer hasn’t been paying attention, has the detectives reiterate the whole plot at the end of the episode and explain exactly what led them to apprehending the perps. You don’t have to participate in most shows, which is TV’s best selling point as well as it’s most damaging intellectual flaw.

Here’s where comics come in. Comics are a happy-medium between TV and books. The artform itself flourished and evolved right alongside the advent and rising popularity of film. The comparison can easily be drawn between a comic and a film storyboard.

If you’re a bit addled or frazzled from a long day of work, comics are far less demanding than books. Oftentimes, you can understand the story without even reading the word bubbles (especially with superhero books). At the same time, comics require imagination in a way that TV doesn’t. For one thing, you have to imagine what actions are occuring between the panels. In one panel, you might see the hero pulling back his fist, and in the next, he lands a punch. It’s up to the reader to imagine the swing itself. While that might not require much abstract thought, it’s still more than what TV asks.

Another plus side of comics is that you’re not hopelessly inundated or mired in commercials. Sure, there are ads in comics, sometimes ten pages worth, but you can easily skip over them with a flick of the wrist, or go back and read them with ironic distance as I usually do. With TV, you’re stuck with them. Sure, you can fast forward through commercials, but then, you’re actually watching the commercials more intensely than you would have otherwise, since you’re trying to see when the show comes back on. That’s one thing I have to thank piraters for; if you stream a show online, you’re spared the visual attack of advertisements TV generally entails (however you’re often stuck with an annoying barrage of pop-up ads and the worse variety, pop-unders).

In the 21st century, comics of every form have become available, and it’s fairly easy to find whatever specific series interests you between local retailers and online ones like Amazon. There’s more than superhero books out there. I’ve made this point many times before, but it’s one that needs to be driven home.

Basically, no matter what your tastes are, there’s a comic for you. For hipsters, there’s Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware. For kids, there’s Carl Barks, Jeff Smith’s classic Bone, and comics based on popular cartoons such as Adventure Time. There’s even a huge amount of comics adapted from literature (David Mazzuchelli illustrated a great adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, for example). One thing the world of comics is missing is a good series about sports–if such a comic has been made, I’ve never found it. Other than that, there’s comics about everything, and something for everyone.

Comics are also wonderful ways of filling in the ‘in-between’ moments you inevitably find during the day. For example, if you’re stuck in a waiting room before a routine exam, a comic can be a great way to while away the time. Comics can make busrides bearable. Comics are also a fine way to pass the time between lying down and sleeping. I recently bought a Kindle Fire which has allowed me to read comics even more often than I already do; I can read them now with the lights off.

Also, it’s possible people are veering away from books because they’re afraid of commitment. Even the trashiest books require a few hours to read. There’s nothing worse than reading an entire book that’s awful (I still have a sense of distaste from reading The Bad Place by Dean Koontz at least 10 years ago). If you watch a terrible film, you can at least console yourself by saying it was only 2 hours that you lost. With TV, you’re still out 30 minutes if it’s bad (or 22 if you’re streaming it). If you read a lousy comic, you’ve only wasted 10 to 15 minutes (or, if you’re a long-time reader like me, the time it takes to read an issue is more like 5 minutes).

However, if you read a good comic, you’ve not only spent 15 minutes wisely, but you’ve done something even more important: read.

 

If you’re feeling adventurous and want to read actual books, please check out my novel A Rapturous Occasion or my collection of stories The Madness of Art.

What are your thoughts on why people should (or should not) read comics?

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