One of the most beautifully straightforward scenes in the film Waking Life explores the notion that words are "inert" symbols derived from basic survival instinct. For those too busy to watch a two-minute youtube clip, the speaker essentially asserts that while some words have clear cut meanings (ex. "water"), others are considerably more "abstract." With these words, one's interpretation is dependent upon that individual's experience with it. Her example is the word "love," and she says that your own experiences of love (or lack thereof) directly affect the way you interpret of the word.
It's an interesting point, sure, but she's ignoring the central roles of tradition and culture. John Doe may not have ever kissed Susie Q, but I'm sure he saw Beauty and the Beast or listened to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a kid. Regardless, my favorite part of this scene are the little illustrations that the scene's artist decided to add to assist with the viewer's understanding of the screenplay. Even if you may not know how love feels, you subconsciously associate a cartoon heart with the "intangible" emotion. Similar picture symbols surround us in nearly every facet of our lives. If you are driving and see an "M," you might get a taste for french fries. If you a come to a red light, you know to stop. And if a tiny picture gas pump lights up on your dash, you know you'd better look for a cartoon shell along the road.
By including these cartoon cues, the artist helps make the same point the writer (speaker) does, and it is more simplistic than we may first realize: the scene speaks to the power of symbols of all kinds, words and pictures alike. And by combining both types of symbols, this short, two-minute clip leads the viewer to the very "transient" experience it describes.
Two mediums definitionally utilize both words and pictures in a consecutive manner (most of the time). The first--film--is commonly considered a form of "high" art. It is consumed in enormous quantities, critiqued and analyzed to death, and still maintains a great deal of respect as an art form.
Why then is the second--comics--so enthusiastically disregarded by the average person? The question, though rhetorical, has a fairly obvious answer. The average person has a very specific idea of what comics are despite relative unfamiliarity. At the very least, this person knows what comics are not: they are not high art, they are not literature, and they are not worth the time.
Now I could go on and on about why comics are negatively stereotyped and why it's unfair and blah blah blah, but if you're at all intrigued, you should check out Scott McCloud's excellent Understanding Comics. This book is essential reading for anyone with a cursory interest in the medium. It addresses issues ranging from the ancient history of comics to the speech bubbles they utilize, all with more thought and wit than one might think possible.
Plus, this post really isn't made with the intent to compare comics with Moby Dick or Citizen Kane. What matters to me is that we--the intelligent, curious, ambitious, and everyone in between--become interested enough in graphic novels (a term used for the same reason we use "film" instead of "movie," or "literature" instead of "book") to want to read them avidly. Don't pick up the next graphic novel I suggest merely because I suggested it; do it because you have a genuine interest in the medium.
Why should you? Because that same "transient" feeling described in Waking Life, the one that "we live for," is what comics do best. By combining both pictures and words, comics are able to more simplistically convey complex emotions, characters, and plots to their readers. Moreover, many of the most common literary techniques (metaphor, symbolism, et. al) are easily enhanced by mere inclusion of imagery.
Educators are beginning to take note. School Library Journal found that by simply including comics in junior high school libraries, library traffic increased by 82% including a 30% increase in non-comic circulation. Jodi Leckbee, a high school teacher in Austin, Texas, details, "a distinct shift in attendance by [her] normally 'borderline' students" when graphic novels were added to her curriculum. Leckbee explains, "Graphic novels act as a bridge, allowing students to transcend their usual apathy toward reading assignments...A literary piece, like a graphic novel, calls on students to use their analyzing and synthesizing skills, actually requiring more involvement and focus in their reading."
It's about time that we examine our own "apathy toward reading," albeit a singular form. Please realize that like any form of art, there's a lot of crap mixed in with the good. On Monday, I'll recommend one of my personal favorites and why. But ultimately comics are as varied in subject and content as literature and music. It's up to you to seek out the style or writer that suits you best. What's important is that we begin to view that seeking as worthwhile. I guarantee you'll find the benefits to be not only rewarding but transient.