For a long time, comics lovers have been struggling to have comic books recognized as Real Literature. To be sure, some comics have achieved this distinction—Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer in 1992, but even then it was a “special award” because the board found the book “hard to classify.” Despite the wide range of subject matter, artistic style and target ages of comic books these days, the phrase “comic book” is still tossed around as an insult. Just think what it means if somebody says a novel or a movie or a TV show is “comic book-ish.” Generally, they’re not saying that it’s innovative or emotionally compelling or profound—though comic books can be all of these things. The use of the term “graphic novel” is a concession to the fact that “comic book” just sounds like lightweight fluff, and it’s used in many cases for books that really don’t qualify as “novels. ”
Getting the world to acknowledge that comic books can be serious literature is an uphill battle. But there’s one group of people that makes it especially difficult, a group that has a significant influence on this issue. In my opinion, comics will never break the “low-culture” barrier until these particular people decide to treat comics as deserving of respect. Who are these people?
You guessed it: comic book writers.
Oh, that wasn’t your guess?
Here’s the thing: many comics I’ve read are full of errors—grammatical, spelling, punctuation and sometimes just plain using the wrong word. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is really the fault of the writer, or perhaps the letterer, but surely anything should be proofread before it gets published, right? As a bit of a grammar stickler myself, I cringe when I see misplaced apostrophes. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but when your gorgeous illustrations are accompanied by the wrong “its/it’s” choice it feels like putting the Mona Lisa in a cheap $3 frame—or giving her an extra nose. How can you expect somebody to treat your comic book as Serious Literature when you don’t even know the difference between “their” and “there?”
Let’s take a look at a few examples. You may recognize some of these yourself. I’m not picking on these as horrible comics—in fact, some of these frames are from comics that I really enjoyed—but the fact remains that most of these are mistakes that you shouldn’t be making in junior high English class, let alone in a comic book for publication.
First, probably the most common error, misplaced apostrophes.
Ok, I am going to pick on this one a little. I like “Unshelved,” which is a comic about libraries and can be quite funny. But this particular frame was featured in the Reading With Pictures anthology, specifically designed to bring comics into the classroom and encourage the use of comics in developing literacy. While I’ve only seen the few sample images on the Reading With Pictures website, I wonder how closely the entries were screened for errors. Also of note: “Garfield” is misspelled.
Here’s another tactic—when you’re not sure whether “its” or “it’s” is possessive, just switch it up and use both! (I should mention that there was a third dialogue bubble that went back to “its” again.)
Oooh, this one’s a bit trickier. I guess technically that’s not an apostrophe at the beginning—it’s a single quotation mark. Based on the rest of this particular comic, I know that it’s not intended to be used as a quotation, in which case this excerpt might be correct. (But then the next paragraph should also start with the single quote, and eventually when the speaker is done you’d get a closing quotation mark.) No, I think this was meant to show some sort of poetic elision as in “e’en.” So it’s fine to use the apostrophe after “Tho” but I’m really not sure what it’s doing before.
Folks, I know apostrophes can be tricky. You learn that ‘s denotes a possessive so then it seems to make sense that “it’s” is the possessive. I get it. But it’s wrong. Learn the rules—if reading them in Elements of Style is too difficult, then try Bob the Angry Flower or The Oatmeal.
Ok, here’s a type of mistake that I don’t see often:
The sentence starts off in first person, and then mysteriously switches to second person. We continued into the forest, which caused your spirit to be exhausted. I don’t even know what to say about this one, so we’ll move on.
Ah, this might be my favorite type of error, because it makes me laugh more than cringe—malapropisms, or using a word that sounds like the one you want but isn’t. It happens a lot—I know here on GeekDad I’ve caught instances of “pouring over books” or “ware” instead of “wear.” Fortunately, it’s easier to correct that on a blog than in print.
I suppose in the land of mice it’s quite possible for somebody to be “shrewed.” But in this case I’m guessing the word he was looking for was “shrewd.”
I’m not sure that’s what you intended to say…
A lot of times we pronounce words with Ts with a D sound, like “latter” or “bitter.” But it just so happens that we pronounce words with Ds with a D sound as well: “ladder,” “bidder” and—oh, yeah—”shudder.”
Maybe “self wealth” is something else entirely, but I’m pretty sure this is supposed to mean “self worth.” I’ll give the sentence fragment above a pass because it was a field guide and it could be argued that it’s just a phrase to describe this entry … but it’s stretching it a bit.
All right, then. That’s my little gallery of errors, but there are plenty more where that came from. Now, not all comics make me want to reach for a red pen, but I’ve found that I’m much more likely to find simple, grade-school-level mistakes in comic books than I am in a novel or even a children’s book. There’s a sloppiness in comics that is, in my opinion, inexcusable.
Come on, comics writers: if you want comics and graphic novels to be treated as literature, at the very least you must make sure that your writing is free of simple errors. Don’t comics publishers employ proofreaders and editors?
Comics can draw a reader in and inspire emotions as strong as any found in novels and poetry. Just like great literature, comics can be serious or humorous (or sometimes both) and they can contain almost any imaginable subject matter.
Comics are serious literature. Let’s start writing them that way.