Why It Matters That Marvel Comics Are Becoming Penguin Classics


Last year, Penguin Classics began publishing collections of Marvel Comics under its banner—a groundbreaking example of comics representation in literature—beginning with Black Panther, Captain America, and The Amazing Spider-Man. On September 12, the publisher released the three latest books in the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection series: The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men, curated by series editor Ben Saunders and introduced by authors Leigh Bardugo, Jerry Craft, and Rainbow Rowell. PW spoke with Craft, Rowell, and Saunders about their own journeys as comic book readers, reading comics as literature, and the importance of enshrining comics in the literary canon during an unprecedented era of book bans—one that often finds graphic novels on the chopping block.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first discover comics—before or after you began reading prose? What attracted you to the format?

Rainbow Rowell: I started reading comics as a kid. Richie Rich and Mickey Mouse. Some Archie. And whatever superhero comics my dad would let me read. Then in middle school, I started reading the X-Men and Batman, and darker, more adult comics. Comics just clicked with me. I was always a picture book kid; I kept reading and buying them into adulthood. There’s something about words plus pictures that really works with my brain.

Jerry Craft: My love of comics started way before reading prose. I was what you would call a very reluctant reader. My sister and brother were 10 and 9 years older than me, so I never remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by comics. But before I even tried to read them, I tried to draw them. And before trying to draw them, I tried to trace them with tracing paper or carbon paper. (Remember that!?) But my favorite, by far, were Marvel Comics! Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Avengers were some of the first that I remember seeing. As I began collecting on my own, Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer also became some of my personal favorites.

I have absolutely no shame in admitting that Marvel Comics, and the Sunday funnies, were the only things that made this former reluctant reader a lot less reluctant. I think it was a combination of the color and the action that drew me initially, but I also found the protagonists much more relatable than any of the characters that I was forced to read about in prose novels. Marvel also had a way of turning the everyday Peter Parkers of the world into the heroes that everyone could root for. Unfortunately, I hardly ever found the same in books.

Ben Saunders: In the early 1970s, the most successful British comics such as the Beano were mostly made up of dubiously “humorous” strips oriented towards younger readers. I’m sure I read and liked some of them, but nothing made a deep impression on me until my grandmother bought me a copy of Spider-Man Comics Weekly—a British reprint filled with stories from American comics, but with the spelling “corrected” for a British audience. (Years later, I got to meet Marvel writer and editor Danny Fingeroth, and he told me one of his first jobs was to add the missing “u” vowels in words such as “colour.”) I was probably attracted by the fact that the stories seemed to be aimed at someone a little older than me. There was action, drama, and even some quite sophisticated discussion of the problem of racism in America politics. (You can find the original story in The Amazing Spider-Man #91 and #92, first published in 1970, although I was reading it a few years later, and it’s still a powerful and all-too-relevant indictment of the presence of white supremacist ideology in American political life.)

I had started to learn to read when I encountered this comic, but didn’t yet love reading. Comics definitely changed that for m to the point where reading would become my profession as well as one of the great joys of my life. AND I was also blown away by the quality of the artwork. As I would later come to learn, such artists as Gil Kane and John Romita Sr., who drew that crucial Spider-Man tale, were more influenced by the naturalistic, illustrative styles of the American newspaper adventure comics tradition than the more overtly cartoony humorist tradition of younger children’s comics. So their work was more accurate in terms of figure work and perspective, as well as more dynamic and action packed. Of course, I didn’t know any of that at time. I just thought their stuff was incredibly cool and unlike anything I was seeing in British comics.

Things would soon change in British comics too, partly because of the influence of this American material. When the great British titles of 2000 AD and Warrior launched in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, respectively, I was primed for them, and was therefore lucky enough to be present and aware of what would prove to be a genuine pop-cultural revolution in U.K. comics—and ultimately a quantum leap in the possibilities of the comics art form.

What does it mean to you when we call a comic book or graphic novel a classic? Why is it important that literary institutions, such as Penguin Classics, recognize comics and their creators as part of the so-called literary canon?

RR: I think it means that the comic has remained meaningful over time. That it’s influenced other work or culture. That it still resonates with people. It’s the sort of thing that is still sending out ripples. These comics have had a massive and undeniable impact on our culture. And for years and years, they were dismissed and considered disposable. The artists and writers themselves seemed disposable, almost like it didn’t matter who was telling (what turned out to be) incredibly influential stories. So it feels right to archive comics and make room for them on the classics shelf, to honor those storytellers—but also to better understand our current culture.

JC: To me, the word “classic” is the same whether you’re talking about comics, movies, clothes, or cars. It means that it generates so much emotion that the appeal will last for generations. And so many of my favorite stories are still as amazing now as they were when I first read them under the covers with a flashlight.

I’ve been to other countries and seen firsthand how fans treat comic creators. And it’s very well deserved. It seems as if so many of my artist and writer heroes never got the recognition they deserved. I have been very fortunate to win some very prestigious awards, so I have been able to enjoy my flowers. But these classics let fans like me relive the magic of my childhood while also introducing them to a whole new generation of readers. And to show the world that comics are indeed literature!

BS: “Classic” is a complicated term. How could it not be, after almost two generations of political and theoretical interrogation of the concept of the literary canon? Along with many others, I’m skeptical about unexamined notions of cultural value and uncomfortable with universalist language that insists on the “greatness” of certain works. I think the interpretive process and the mechanisms of cultural evaluation are much more complicated—and fascinating—than can be captured by any simple claim of “greatness.”

We have to start from the more flexible premise that different works are accorded “classic” status for different reasons. In the case of these Marvel comics from the 1960s and ‘70s, I think it’s partly a function of how groundbreaking they were in their original context. Remember, they were produced at breakneck speed under factory conditions in a commercial industry that was still largely seen as “children’s entertainment,” and they nevertheless managed to become templates for literally thousands of pages of subsequent stories—not to mention the impact they had on 21st century film and television. This means that the best 1960s Marvel comics are perhaps better understood in comparison to say, the best Hollywood films produced under the Studio system of the 1930s and ‘40s, rather than in comparison to a more traditional literary classic such as Milton’s Paradise Lost. But surely only the most benighted souls would claim the films of Capra or Hawks or Cukor are not “classics,” let alone that they are not “art.”

I think this is something Penguin Classics has really understood and gotten right with this series. These texts are classics of their kind—groundbreaking in context and astoundingly influential, not just at the time but in their ongoing impact upon contemporary popular culture. They are indeed classics of popular literature (just like Dickens or Stevenson…or Shakespeare, for that matter), but they also challenge traditional conceptions of the literary, in that their achievements depend on the interaction of the verbal and the visual (making them closer to films than traditional novels).

I honestly believe that in a very real way, the critical understanding in many of our leading institutions of art and culture has not yet sufficiently developed to be able to discuss comics and graphic novels in a manner commensurate with their importance and impact. We don’t even have a widely agreed upon vocabulary to discuss the formal devices of the medium (in the way we do when we discuss poetry, for example). That might be one reason that it still enrages people to have to consider comics as artworks at all. They literally don’t know how to talk about them. Industry terms like “panel,” “breakdown,” and “splash page” are not widely familiar, and the actual production processes—which can vary enormously from creator to creator and company to company—are often a mystery to anyone who is not an industry insider or a scholar of the medium.

But perhaps the designation of these works as not just important but “classic” might actually help to advance the discussion of the medium. At the very least, we’ve attempted, through the scholarly apparatus of these books, to provide some of the contextual information and clarify why these comics have had the impact that they have had—as well as the unique circumstances in which they were produced.

The bottom line is that aesthetic values are culturally and historically contingent, constantly subject to change, and upheld by fascinatingly complex processes in which ideas about art and politics and education are revealed (once examined) to be deeply enmeshed and the willingness to accord superhero comics “classic” status is in that regard as important to the cultural conversation as the willingness to accord similar status to the films of the Hollywood Studio system or the greatest pop music of the 1960s. Honestly, it’s long overdue.

Why do you think so many comics—especially by creators of color and queer creators—are being banned these days? What superpower does the medium have that people find threatening, do you think?

RR: I think that comics work on our brain differently. They’re more visceral. It’s always different to see something than it is to hear about it or read about it. Sex and violence hit differently in a comic than they do in a prose novel. You can pull a few panels of a comic out of context and people will have an immediate emotional reaction to what they’re seeing. They might also feel like they understand the whole work from just those panels. (The same way we might think we understand an entire situation from a photo or a bit of video.)

JC: In my case, first Marvel comics encouraged me to read. Then they uncovered my passion, which is drawing. Then they inspired me to create my own comics. Making comics has allowed me to show the world that I could follow my real-life heroes and create stories for a whole new generation of kids like me. To create stories that make my readers feel seen, and feel important. Stories that give them the characters and the words to “fight evil” and to have the empathy and compassion to “protect the little guy,” even if they are a little guy themselves. Like Jordan Banks in my New Kid series. I try to carry on the legacy of creating stories to help people to realize their power and the responsibility that comes with it. To be without fear. To be amazing. Or spectacular! Unfortunately, whenever and wherever there are heroes, there are villains who do whatever they can to oppose them, whether it makes sense or not. So what you see today, in essence, is a real-life comic book brought to life.

BS: I think it’s fundamentally about the way people respond to visual images, particularly when taken out of context. There’s a (naive) presumption that pictures are more immediate than words…as if they don’t require interpretation. In some ways, this culture of reaction to the visual is not new. Think of the longstanding anxiety within the Christian tradition over “graven images,” the iconoclastic impulses of the Reformation, and so on. In the case of comics, this fascinating cultural anxiety about the power of images is compounded by the (also naive) presumption that comics is a children’s medium—a mistaken view that resolutely persists among certain readerly communities, despite the fact that comics can tell any kind of story. (Something similar seems to happen with animation. It doesn’t matter how many obviously adult-oriented animated films or series are produced—for some reason, some folks can’t get their heads around the idea that cartoons are not always for kids.)

Perhaps part of the problem here is the degree to which some of us are beholden to a painfully boring picture of adulthood, as if “putting away childish things” has to mean putting away anything that is sensory, pleasurable, or palpably oriented towards the aesthetic. Maybe if we started to accept that adults are not being childish when they allow themselves to be transported by narrative, spectacle, and story—that they are just being human—some of these confusions would fall away. In the meantime, we will just have to keep patiently reminding people that they don’t always have to be threatened by the things they find unfamiliar and different—that maybe we can all survive a bit of confusion over what constitutes masculinity or femininity, for example, and that it doesn’t mean the world is ending just because you can’t always tell the girls from the boys. In fact, readers of all stripes sometimes seem to need reminding that books don’t have to relentlessly reinforce a particular set of values (any set of values) in order to be worth reading.

Perhaps the main difficulty, in the end, is that for those of us who love reading—really love it, and really like to read widely, across genres and times—part of the point is that we like to have our minds expanded, our horizons broadened, and our values occasionally challenged by the unfamiliar and disagreeable. And there will always be people who really don’t want those experiences.

If you had to pick one seminal Marvel comic book title arc to include in this collection that hasn’t already been chosen, what would it be and why?

RR: This X-Men collection is so focused on the birth of team that it wouldn’t make sense to include this, but the arc that made the biggest impact on me as a teen was Days of Future Past by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. I read it years after it was published, but I was still completely gripped by it. The personalities and the high stakes. That era of X-Men comics made me a lifelong fan.

JC: First of all, I can’t pick one. Sorry. But my all-time favorite stories include The Coming of Galactus story, which I know is already a Penguin Classic. So I shouldn’t have chosen that. BUT the reason that I am is because not only have I owned that original series since I was a kid (and still have them), but I actually got to write the foreword for it! All I can say is EXCELSIOR!!!

Okay, so as far as an actual real answer: any story from the original Silver Surfer series. (I own 13 of the 18. The cover of issue #4 vs Thor—which I don’t own—still gives me goosebumps.) A close second is The Death of Gwen Stacy in the Amazing Spider-Man (issues #121 and 122). And just to part from the big names a bit, I would probably include the first Micronauts series. And maybe the original Nova series. Classics!

BS: So, the good news is that we will likely be able to publish a few more significant Marvel classics in some additional volumes over the next few years. But I probably shouldn’t say more than that—except that it’s a deep archive, with a lot of gems waiting to be rediscovered and given the Penguin Classics treatment.

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