By Skylar Gikas
In high school, I read a lot of manga, often several volumes a day. In an ideal world, the titles and volume numbers would be what I put on my mandatory logs that tracked how much I read outside the curriculum that week. However, no matter how many volumes I read of D-Grayman—an action/fantasy series about exorcistsand demons in the early 19th century—I’d get no credit for reading that week. This was not a problem of content; I got away with reusing the Percy Jackson series multiple times, and those are fantasy books for children. It’s a problem of medium. Manga, and all graphic novels by extension, are not ‘real literature,’ according to the people who taught me. One might find a few think-pieces entertaining the question through Google, but if you take a college class, don’t expect to see Anya’s Ghost on it. And this doesn’t even begin to touch related mediums, like light novels (serialized fiction interspersed with artwork), or visual novels (a cross between a novel, anime aesthetics, and with the decision-making choices of a video game), which have gotten me quizzical stares for even mentioning them. Even at Purchase, I’ve had the ironic privilege of being part of this discussion in my literature or creative writing classes, while the reading lists for said classes remained strictly traditional prose. It’s an idea that’s starting to be entertained, but not fully committed to.
But why not? Do comics not also have characters? Do they not have themes, or symbols, or metaphor, the same you’d find in normal prose? Fan communities for years have been analyzing the blood-stained smiley that symbolizes Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and yet even with all its critical acclaim, there are still published authors like S.E Hinton who sees graphic novels as merely idle pages to turn. Works like Higurashi: When They Cry, a visual novel and later manga employs storytelling so ingenious that its appeal and influence spread across an entire industry, and yet, whenever I’ve brought it up with professors, teachers, or writers, they don’t know what I’m talking about. They don’t know about narrators so unreliable, so lost in their headspace, that for six entries in the series, the sentence “Did you go out for lunch today” genuinely translates as a threat. They don’t know how it starts as a psychological horror, and ends as a heartwarming coming of age story with all the seeds of this inevitable transition planted so well that the shift is seamless.
Last semester, I took a class on literature of war. As in all literature classes, we talked about the themes of works like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5, how the dialogue furthers the characters, what the characters say about the themes, about the use of symbols and metaphor. These are the qualities that make up literature. In Re:Zero (a light novel and manga), the main character’s dying and returning to the same checkpoint, until he gets it right, is a comment on how if we become complacent with our own inadequacies, we will never meaningfully move forward. I think that’s literary, but I know it’s not taught.
There are throwaway classes about studying graphic novels as a medium, as if a few months could adequately cover a medium with a range of subjects. More could be gotten out of these works if they weren’t consigned to dedicated niche classes, but instead, included with the likes of Hemingway. Art Spiegelman’s Maus displays the horror of the holocaust, and can be as visceral and devastating as Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, but it was not in my war literature class.
There are students like me, those who enjoy manga, or graphic novels, or light novels, or visual novels—students like me who wish to write in those mediums. To pursue what is already there but left untouched by our educators. I’ve been told by professors they are unsure if they can help me, because my senior project is tied to a visual novel I’m also working on. They are unfamiliar with my medium of choice, but I know if they read even one, they would find it more familiar than not. And as I sit there, explaining, and reexplaining, and explaining yet again, I’m struck with the feeling that the boundaries between mediums are arbitrary, superficial barriers that make mountains out of the few differences, but ignore all there is that is the same.