At John Jakala's blog Jakala raised the question as to what if any superhero comics and which manga his readers viewed as possessing "literary merit." He added: 'I purposely didn't define what I meant by "literature" or "literary merit," instead allowing everyone to name their picks based on their own understanding of what those criteria mean.'
But I find myself wondering: without even a partial definition, does the question reveal anything about how the respondents came to their conclusions? And I would have to say no: as phrased, the question amounts to nothing but a comics-oriented Rorschach Test (albeit less painful than the kind of test where Rorschach breaks your fingers). Whatever criteria the words "literary merit" trigger in the respondents' minds will shape each individual respondent's idea of "literary comics."
The results included a fair variety of the usual suspects, among which were two thematically-related works. One was the work that gave us the aforementioned Rorschach, the Moore/Gibbons WATCHMEN, while the other was SQUADRON SUPREME, written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn principally by Bob Hall and Paul Ryan. Of the two, I think that one has artistic merit while the other does not, but it may prove useful to speculate through what patterns of association these two works ended up on the same list. What I want to do in future related posts is to speculate on what kinds of critical schemas usually inform typical non-critically-oriented readers when they think about the subject of literary merit, be it in comics or in any medium.
(Just to anticipate: no, I don't consider myself a "non-critically-oriented reader." And I suppose some might say, "Why don't you ask the respondents directly in whatever forum might reach them all?" But because by definition most readers aren't reading as part of an ongoing critical project, as I do, their reasons wouldn't necessarily be helpful.)
The three schemas I'll use in future posts will be drawn in part from Northrop Frye's landmark ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. I'll use three of the same categories Frye did-- "ethical criticism," "aesthetic criticism," and "archetypal criticism"-- with the usual caveat that I may differ with Frye on this or that point as to what defines each category. These aren't the only critical categories (what I, not Frye, call "schemas") used in the ANATOMY but they're the only three relevant to my cultural mind-reading act.