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Comics: The Building Blocks of Culture

Richard Graham's Literature as Comics
Comic Image

This is the thirteenth installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine the connections of UNL, Nebraska, and the larger literary world with the comics medium.

Google-eyed. Jeep. Rube Goldberg devices. Dagwood sandwiches. Buster Brown shoes. Mickey Mouse college courses. All of these common phrases and descriptors are derived from comic strips, books, or artists. It’s fun to see the wide-ranging influences of a typically cast-upon popular media. So often regarded with disdain and suspicion, yet also certainly loved and treasured, comics ought to be respected for what they have given to American cultures, popular or otherwise.

An example of a more recent contribution: The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule. This is a sort-of litmus test that one can apply to rate a movie or work of fiction for its female presence. It is named after Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch For, where the test was first introduced in this 1985 strip, the Rule.


The test requires that the following three criteria be met in order to “pass”: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. For a video introduction to the subject, check out The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies on the website Feminist Frequency

But, in addition to our popular vernacular, the comics medium has also influenced much of higher culture. Some of you may be familiar with Roy Lichtenstein, the American pop artist, who along with Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and a host of others brought the influence of popular advertisements, graphic design, and comic books into the mainstream art world. His bright reproductions of comic book panels were controversial at the onset, with many questioning his originality. The comic panels that Lichtenstein took his ideas from were drawn by such artists as Jack Kirby, Jerry Grandenetti, Russ Heath, Irv Novivk, and Tony Abruzzo, all of whom rarely received any credit. In ‘Deconstructing Lichtenstein,’ David Barsalou took his time to search for the original comic and put this side by side to Lichtenstein’s art work. It can be found here.

Beyond visual art, comics have also captured the imaginations of many writers and poets. By showing so many fantasies, dreams, and fears, and coupled with representations of social issues and ideologies, comics have influenced generations of writers who went on to articulate many of the same themes and motifs − authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, as well as those who have written both comics and novels, such as David Serchay and Neil Gaiman.

But perhaps my favorite way of thinking about comics’ influence on American culture is through the lens of nostalgia. Comic books and the strips found in the newspapers were the building blocks of literacy for many of us. The short phrases and limited text scaffolded our reading confidence and allowed us to grow. I think the following excerpt from William Kloefkorn’s poem, “Waiting for the End,” captures this feeling:

Lying in bed with its white starched sheets

and a hand-tied crazy-quilt, a one-pound box of soda crackers open between us,

my brother and I read comic books

until the will no less than the crackers

gives out