I grew up obsessed with the X-Men. On Sundays after mass, my father would take my brothers and me to the only well-stocked bookstore we knew of at the mall. As we approached the entrance to the bookstore, I’d rush in, joyous and bouncing in anticipation of getting lost in the wonders behind its doors.
The bookstore is where I first learned to lose my outwardly embellished self to my other self, my raw inner self, the way one might lose oneself in a sea of dreams before jerking awake. . I discovered what love was inside the pages of books. I glimpsed the vastness of a beautiful world in the stories I encountered and it filled me with hunger to just learn. The X-Men were some of my first heroes. This is not to say that the X-Men were only the first superheroes I knew, but that the graphic novel itself, in its storytelling and medium, also rescued me from my bored mind and propelled me towards an imagination endless.
This is what great literature does: save! Yet growing up, I never saw an English teacher open a comic strip in class to discuss class differences or the complexities of womanhood as they did novels like Killing a Mockingbird or Jane Eyre. Until recently, graphic novels have been treated by academia and society as children’s toys, bread for the feeble-minded. They are like dolls in that as you get older, you are naturally expected to do without “childish” toys like dolls and indulge in more adult pastimes: Russian literature, Negroni Sbagliatos, and taxes.
Ordinary people don’t play with dolls beyond a certain age for fear of encountering the particular distaste we hold for grown adults who are in love with children’s things.
Yet, as a child, it was the X-Men that saved me from lack of imagination with their carefully rendered fight scenes, daring superhero costumes, limitless variety of characters, stories and powers, and their general story of a people which was being persecuted for being who they were.
The power of the graphic novel, as with all literature, is the power to manifest imagination and dream as defined by Toni Morrison in her “Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address.” Morrison describes dreaming as an intimate projection, “Focused imagination [that] should precede our decision making, our cause, [and] our action”. Believe it, say it and so it will be. You see, it is in the realm of dreams that God also works; here, He said, “Let there be light!”
In this dreamlike spirit, my first heroes lifted me up when I didn’t know what was possible. I saw in the X-Men that it was not a curse to be born as an “other” identity into the upheaval of heteronormative society, and that curses are not magic, but the inner projection of evil dreams. I learned from my heroes that, to break a curse, you had to dream back, dream so hard that you woke up in the world you wanted to see, a world made in your image.
For a small child, that of Neil Gaiman The Sandman it could be the story of a dream god seeking to reclaim his power, just like Moby Dick it could be the story of a man and a whale. As we mature, however, we see the layers within these narratives. Gaiman tells us the story of Morpheus, the god of dreams, on a journey to recover his objects of power and restore the dream world to allow humanity to dream properly again.
As we browse The Sandman, let’s deal with big existential questions; a world where sleep is no longer a peaceful escape, where living becomes a waking death because dreams, matter of art and stories, cease to exist. Clearly, these texts are worth a closer and more mature look.
By nurturing visual literacy and comprehension skills to enable readers to decipher the meaning of words and images, graphic novels expand the possibilities for personal reflection, political protest, and general storytelling. They also make complex and serious stories more accessible to children, allowing them to engage with the real world in the language they recognize.
Compared to my experience as a kid, it’s nice to see graphic novels being taken more seriously. From various college courses on graphic novels to ingenious TV adaptations such as The Sandmanattitudes are changing to take graphic novels seriously as items of literary value.
Graphic novels combine both visual art and the written word to tell stories. They are different from written novels but just as valuable, in the way that poetry is different in its oratorical nature and musical applications. Confusing written literature and art with graphic novels doesn’t do any of them justice. Instead, it is necessary to develop programs dedicated to graphic novels. We also need a graphic novel literary canon.
Whatever happens, the beauty of the dream voice is that it is eternal, its morphic resonances ultimately infinite.