A few years ago, I attended the opening of a new Barnes & Noble bookstore. Naturally, my priority was to see if the Comics and Graphic Novels section was well-stocked. As I was scanning the shelves, I noticed a young man, about 14 or 15, sitting on the floor reading a Batman book. After a while, a woman about my age, apparently his mother, came over and whispered a few words to him. As she stood up, she saw me standing nearby -- reading a Batman book. She walked up to me and said, "So what you're telling me is, he's not going to grow out of this."
The relative merits of Batman notwithstanding, the attitude that comics are for children and the semi-literate pervades American society. Many critics feel that the worst insult they can give to a book or film is to say it has a "comic book" sensibility. I enjoy poking fun at comics from time to time, but as for the attitude on the whole, I object.
If you're a parent, or if you've ever had a parent, then you're familiar with the struggle of trying to get a kid who's glued to the TV interested in reading books. Sure, there are exceptions, but overall, the video screen has the stronger allure. Why is this? I believe it's because reading a book is an active pastime. It's a partnership between the author and the reader, and requires an effort on both parts to tell an effective story. Watching a movie or TV show, on the other hand, is almost completely passive.
With a book, the author has placed words on a page, and it's up to the reader to interpret those words and create images in his or her own mind. Though the creator offers descriptions and suggestions, it's the reader who ultimately decides what the characters look and sound like, how they're dressed, and how detailed the background is. In a movie, all of these decisions are already made, and the audience just sits back to watch.
Also, when reading a book, you follow the story at your own pace. If you're a fast reader, you might finish a book in a day, while a slower reader may take a couple of weeks. You can skim through the sections that don't interest you, and linger over the more fascinating passages. You can go back and reread earlier sections to pick up on more details, and you can even read the end first and work your way backwards, if you're into that sort of thing. With a film, on the other hand, the story unfolds at a predetermined speed. If you miss an important detail, you can't go back again. (I'm ignoring DVDs and VCRs for the sake of this discussion. Yes, they exist, but most filmmakers still expect their stories to be watched linearly, and not with a remote control in hand.)
But "active" versus "passive" isn't an either/or proposition. They're the extreme ends of a storytelling spectrum. Suppose an author wants to control the pacing of the story, but let the audience's imagination provide the imagery? This can be a powerful combination for building suspense. The best medium for that storyteller is the spoken word, which can take several forms: monologues, radio plays, songs, or the telling of stories around a campfire.
On the other hand, a creator may want to control the images, but allow the audience to set the pace. What medium allows this? Comics.
The written word; the motion picture; the spoken word; and comics. Four different media for telling stories, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and level of audience participation. There's nothing inherent in any of them that limits it to a particular age group, education level, or economic level. Each of them can be, and has been, used to tell a children's bedtime story or a Shakespearean play; a lighthearted comedy or a deep philosophical parable; a mindbending science fiction odyssey, a tearjerking romantic melodrama, a vast historical epic, or a Batman story.
Theater and film were once considered entertainment for the illiterate. Over the past thirty years, comics creators have been struggling to dispel a similar image, with noteworthy works like Eisner's A Contract With God; Spiegelman's Maus; Satrapi's Persepolis; and Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp achieving critical respect and admiration. Even superhero comics have taken a more serious turn, with Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's Watchmen. But there are still many people who think of these as aberrations, and that comic books always were and always should be written for kids. There's still a long way to go to change that attitude.
** UPDATE 04/06/2011 **
I just came across this excellent essay by Conor McCreery on the same subject.