Allen Ellis and Doug Highsmith’s “About Face: Comic Books in Library Literature” (2000) surveys and discusses information and views about comics from the 1940s through the 1990s.
While studying the article, I found myself thinking about my high school days. At the time, there were school dress codes which forbid students to wear denim pants, known then as ‘dungarees’ or ‘blue jeans’ – pants made of heavy, dark blue fabric, affordable and essential for laborers who needed sturdy and comfortable work clothes. Eventually, such pants became popular garb for youth. School dress codes came to permit ‘jeans’ – pants made of heavy, dark blue fabric, affordable and more form-fitting than dungarees, but still sturdy and comfortable.
Looking back, the anti-dungarees rules and attitudes appear elitist (those pants were cheap), fussy/arrogant (those pants were not ‘school’ clothes), and restrictive (those pants might allow students to relax).
Perhaps comics have been the ‘dungarees’ of literature for youth. Views of comics have been elitist (Ellis & Highsmith, 2000, pp. 1, 14), fussy/arrogant (Crutchfield, n.d., as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 9), and restrictive (Price, 1941, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, 2000, p. 11).
Ellis and Highsmith discovered the abovementioned views, as well as changing perspectives and evolving attitudes. On pages 7-13 of their 2000 article, they discuss literature and commentary considered or written by library professionals. Examples include Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), Comics Librarianship: A Handbook (Scott, 1990), and articles by library professionals with views ranging from anti-comics to pro-comics to mixed, including Helen M. Wright (Ellis & Highsmith, 2000, pp. 10-11), Margaret E. Kalp (p. 13), Ann Prentice (p. 15), Will Eisner (p. 17), and Scott McCloud (p. 25).
Views toward comics in the 1940s included a judgement of “national disgrace” (North, 1940, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, 2000, p. 1) and mixed views from professionals and mothers. Views in the 1950s were similar (p. 13), and there were discussions about crime and horror in comics (p. 4) and the role of comics in literacy development (Kalp, 1951, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 13; Nyberg, n.d., as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 10). In the 1960s, views were influenced by “scholarly study of popular culture” (Ellis & Highsmith, p. 6; Sadler, 1964, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 15) and the needs of comics readers (Clarke, 1973, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 15). Caveats explained that comics differ from traditional children’s literature (McGuff, 1968, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 16). The 1970s reveal a “growing appreciation” for comics (Eisner, 1974, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 17) and increasing interest in quality comics collections (Parker, 1971, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 16). Motivation toward library use and literacy needs were discussed in the 1980s (Dorrell & Battle, 1980; Dorrell & Carroll, 1981; Sparks, 1981 – all found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 32), but there was also criticism of the “fun” in comics (Schubert, 1981, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 18) and the “[pollution of] children’s minds” (Van De Voorde, 1981, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 19). There was evidence that some librarians themselves were comics readers (Alward, 1982, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 19), and that technical processing and cataloging of comics was developing (Scott, 1984, as found in Ellis & Highsmith, p. 20). In the 1990s, some discussions celebrated comics in the library and the marketplace (Ellis & Highsmith, p. 23), and noted service to students (Barron, 1991; Sherman & Ammon, 1993 – both found in Ellis & Highsmith, pp. 23-24), although there was debate about the presence of comics literature in library holdings (pp. 24-26).
Based on Ellis and Highman’s six-decade survey, I predict that comics will become commonly accepted as valuable reading choices in libraries and communities, much as jeans have come to be ‘routine’ apparel choices and absolutely acceptable in schools and on the street.
It is fitting to note here the impact of terminology. The term ‘dungarees’ has been part of evolving popular views about denim pants, and can communicate work-use by laborers. The term ‘comics’ has been used regularly, but can communicate that their contents are humorous (Ellis &Highsmith, 2000, pp. 8-9).
I suggest that we use the term “sequentially illustrated stories,” as per Eisner’s suitable term, “sequential art” (2005). Further, I suggest we put on our jeans – or any garb of choice, go to the library, and get reading comics!
Eisner, W. (1985, 2005). Comics and sequential art. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse.
Ellis, A. W., & D. Highsmith. (2000). About face: Comic books in library literature. Serials Review 26(2), 21-43.
Feiffer, J. (1965). The great comic book heroes. New York, NY: Dial.
Scott, R. W. (1990). Comics librarianship: A handbook. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Wertham, F. (1954). Seduction of the innocent. New York, NY: Rinehart.