What is real literature? Some have described literature as stories about losers, others have reduced literary merit to formulaic equations where length and number of deaths determine legitimacy. The truth is, dusty old scholars aside, the definition of real literature is a subjective thing and depends on the reader’s yardstick. Stories considered to be “real literature” generally tend to revolve around subjects considered central to the human experience. If it involves sweeping themes of pain, misery, betrayal, death, loneliness, isolation, vengeance, or tragedy, someone somewhere has read and been moved by it in the past.
In the almost eighty year history of Marvel Comics, there have been a number of stories that should qualify as comics for book lovers, but are instead ignored and considered “funny books.” As the genre has progressed and evolved, there have been deep Marvel moments that reach the border of what is considered real literature, and then go flying past it, into territory waiting to be discovered. These are ten storylines and their accompanying themes Marvel has explored that prove comics are real literature.
Much like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story of Jean Grey and Scott Summers is a story that is doomed to end in heartbreak and death. Jean is bonded to the cosmic engine of destruction and change known as the Phoenix Force and fated to die and rise and die again for all eternity. Each time she dies, she takes a piece of Scott Summers's soul with her. Their love persists across generations and alternate realities, but sadly, ends the same way every time.
X-Men - Phoenix: Endsong #5 gives us a Jean Grey who is ready to go back her source, and a Scott Summers who is ready to end her menace once and for all. Redeemed by the love of the X-Men and anchored by the passion between Jean and Scott, the power of the Phoenix saves the X-Men once last time, says a final farewell to Summers, and leaves them to live their lives without her and without the world-ending threat of the Phoenix. For now.
The story of brothers Loki and Thor and the immensity of their conflict is literally the stuff of legend. The two sons of All-Father Odin have battled through the ages. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Loki’s feelings of inferiority and self-loathing lie at the heart of it all. In Loki: Agent of Asgard #9, Loki admits what has driven him for so long, for it is the root of his supposed change of conscience: he really just wants to be better than his brother. He wants to win.
From the Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo to Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, the theme of revenge served cold has a rich history in classic literature. In Old Man Logan Vol. 1, James Howlett, also known as Wolverine, finds a sort of peace, if not actual happiness, after an act of brutality and horror leaves him hopelessly broken inside. So it is that Logan would rather die than ever raise a hand in violence again;, much less pop his legendary adamantium claws. With a wife, children, and a farm to tend, Logan struggles to live his life and make ends meet in a country ruled by supervillains and devoid of both superheroes and hope.
His attempt to leave his blood-stained past behind ends when Logan’s family is brutally killed by the inbred children of a radiation-maddened Bruce Banner while Logan is away on an ill-advised job. The reader is left chilled to the bone when Old Man Logan Vol. 1 #7 ends with a stoic, dead-eyed Logan, who pops his claws for the first time in fifty years, serving as an announcement that Wolverine has returned, and a prelude to the oceans of blood he’s about to spill.
J.D Salinger’s wildly popular Catcher in the Rye tells the tale of alienated youth Holden Caulfield and his attempt to find truth in a world of phonies, cruelty, and abject loneliness. Peter Parker’s exploits as a super-powered teenager struggling to juggle life, romance, and coming of age while burdened with a sense of responsibility he can never share strikes a similar chord.
Parker tries mightily to live up to the needs and expectations of those around him even as he battles the crushing isolation from those same people, who can never truly understand his singularly unique view on teenage life. When Gwen Stacy, the love of his life, is murdered in Amazing Spider Man Vol. 1 #121, the reader feels Parker’s anguish and loss along with him as he holds her lifeless body in his arms.