Graphic novels can definitely be great works of art. But as an illustrator and sometimes comic artist myself, I can say that few graphic novelists manage to find the potential of the medium.
Too often, graphic novels limit themselves to the trappings of established comic book themes and genres. Even the best, such as "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Watchmen" often stick to familiar subject matter, although if in the hands of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, they manage to transcend it.
Blankets is a graphic novel by Portland artist Craig Thompson, and a great example of the graphic novel's potential as a medium. The story of the author's first love and the conflict it creates with his religious upbringing. It's a story that has been told a million times before. As a movie, perhaps in writing, Blankets would have been unremarkable.
What makes Blankets unusual is the way in which the author uses his lines, his patterns, his brushwork. It is as expressive as the finest of poetry: The pulsating circles of his sleeping lover's heartbeat and breathing... the flirtatious, erotic lines of her handwriting... the patterns of their shared blanket enveloping them in their own, warm, comfortable world together... All perfectly capturing the exhilaration of first love.
It is said that every story has already been told, but the best storytellers are the ones who find a new way to tell them and awaken their audiences to a fresh sensation. Craig Thomspon has created a work of art that stands up to some of the best in any medium. There are others too. Art Spiegelman's Maus comes to mind, as does Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. All of these have set the standard.
Forget the superheroes: I hope to see more graphic novelists follow these examples.
We have gotten into graphic novels, thanks to the library. Multnomah County library (Hollywood branch!) has had a shelf for kids graphic novels and my 8 year old son and I have read through all of them. He has been exposed to things he wouldn't have otherwise, because it was put in graphic form. There are classics in GN like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and others. Currently we are looking at a GN interpretation of Walden. He gets to read Thoureau's words and more importantly - get the spirit of Thoreau's quiet observations of nature, through John Porcellino's great pictures. Its great to be able to expose an 8 year old to those ideas and a GN is a very effective way to do that.
My only caution would be that you need to carefully separate teen GN from kid GN, which the library has done a great job of.
Graphic novels are literature and are definitely works of art. Just like novels, some are good, some are bad, but the best shine through.
One in particular stands in my mind, "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" by Art Spiegelman. A memoir recounting his relationship with his father and his father's experience as a survivor of the Holocaust. It is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read.
Too often comics are relegated to the "childish nonsense" category due to the public's apprehension of the popularity of the superhero power fantasy genre. However, there exists a culture of comics that seeks to push the boundaries of what comics means to pop culture. Through "Watchmen", Alan Moore deconstructed the classic superhero and created one of the most internally disturbed "heroes" in this or any literary genre in the character of Rorschach.
Another champion of comics and graphic novels that I feel should be mentioned is Scott McCloud. His graphic novels on the internal and external worlds of comics are enlightening and informative and show that "comics" have been a part of human society for thousands of years.
I am a fan of graphic novels and I feel a very personal connection when reading them. I hope that as a medium, the graphic novel continues to grow and gain acceptance into the literary mainstream and academic circles.
"Graphic novels, comic books OR literature?" No, no, Emily! Not a disjunction; a conjunction! Graphic novels are both comic books AND literature!
Those of us in the trade simply use the term "graphic novel" (as admittedly problematic as it is) to designate a certain kind of format: one that looks like a book, rather than a "floppy"; one that gets shelved in your bookcase, in other words, rather than encased in Mylar or slabbed in plastic or buried forever in a long box. Or simply thrown away. But the art form is one and the same: comics.
And it's a fascinating form of art/literature -- a kind of hybrid in that it uses static, silent images to tell stories. In fact, one of the more recent textbooks in the field (by cartoonists/educators Jessica Abel and Matt Madden) characterizes the cartoonist's creative enterprise as Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. In comics, these are inseparable.
With Art Spiegelman's Maus having won a special Pulitzer in 1992; Portland's own Joe Sacco having won an American Book Award for Palestine in 1996; Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen having made Time magazine's list of 100 All-Time Best Books ("best books," not best "graphic novels"); Art History and English courses regularly being offered in comics and graphic novels at PSU, PCC, CCC, PNCA, and UofO (and those are just the local colleges); and graphic novels providing the only growth area in a declining book and library market, why oh why does the public at large -- and you! -- continue to refer to "comics" as a pejorative?
Executive Editor, Dark Horse Comics
We just elected the first African American president. Conservatism is being defeated. There are so many stories of election irregularities to sort through. The world is changing under our feet. And you're talking about graphic novels? Are you already "over it?"
We're not "over it," and we're going to keep doing shows about the momentous changes that this country is going through. But it's not going to be all politics all the time. We have been and will continue to mix in shows about culture, business, environmental issues, etc. Today is, yes, about graphic novels. But even today we'll take some time at the end of the show to talk about breaking news: Jeff Merkley is expected to claim victory in his senate race in the middle of our show. We'll turn to the that story in the last part of the hour.
I'm a librarian who orders Graphic Novels for our library. I started reading because of superhero books but I've been amazed at the depth and breadth of where creators have taken the art form. Books like Maus, Persepolis, Scalped, Blankets, and Local show that there are so many places comics can go. I recommended Persepolis to my mother in law and she liked it enough to make her book group read it. It was fascinating to hear how her friends felt about it. Some of them struggled mightily with the format even though the content was typical for their group. The powerful influence of Manga comics is also reshaping the industry and bringing many girls to these books.
I am only an amateur "graphic novelist", but I am a huge, passionate fan of the art form. My personal definition: A graphic novel is a piece of literature that isn't limited by language. I find that "writer's block" never happens when I've got a pencil in my hand.
I also want to add to this very serious conversation that it is FUN! It is SO MUCH FUN to draw out a story! Nothing else like it!
I have been a comic book fan for a long time, however my transition to graphic novels came in the late 80's with the publication of "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller. I believe it is an important work because it bridged the gap between childish comic book fantasy and serious adult graphic fiction. It opened up the medium for serious and controversial topics to be more fully addressed and realized in graphic form.
Thanks for this great topic! I'm also a librarian and have really enjoyed seeing more and more graphic novels added to our collections. We are in the midst of creating a separate collection area for graphic novels, kinda like mystery, sci-fi, and other genres in the fiction. But we also will have the graphic novels shelved in their age levels -- juvenile, teen, and adult. I'd love to know other people's take on this idea? I once heard Marjane Satrapi say that she didn't distinguish between a "graphic novel" and a "novel" -- it's a book. We want people to be able to discover graphic novels -- fans will seek them out, but we feel by having a separate shelving area, more new readers will find them. Thoughts?
I have a son who is 6 and LOVES comic books. They are great for the non-reading kids who can follow the story by the pictures. Unfortunately kid-appropriate comics are tough to find. I am looking for non-violent, non-sexual stories. I did score some great old copies of Casper, Strawberry Shortcake, Muppet Babies, Aristocats, and believe or not, Welcome Back Kotter.
His current favorites are Bone, Captain Marvel and Redwall. There is a beautiful book without words called Corgy that I found at the library.
Last winter solstice I bought him a sketch book and we have been working on a comic together called The Adventures of Tuki and Smooch, based on him and his little brother. He draws the pictures and tells me the narrative and I write the words. It is such a fun, creative activity that we really bond over.
I so wish I could be listening to the radio right now - but 9:00 is hard for me with work....
I'm very excited about this topic and have a question that I've been asking friends for years -
What one graphic novel do you think is the best one to give to someone who is unfamiliar with the genre? (Someone who has never been a comic book reader or a graphic novel reader.)
I'll hold my personal answer for a while to see what everyone else comes up with.
David - please post any interesting radio responses if you can. Thanks.
I just realized that my screen name may give away my answer... :)
I bought my first "underground" comixs "HUP" and "Big ASS" by Robert Crumb in the late 1960's, they were racy, beautifully drawn, and acknowledged big asses and thick thighs, very powerfull stuff for a teenager art student. Crumb's drawing style is so beautiful, whatever he does (see this weeks NEW YORKER magazine with a piece by Aileene and Sophie Crumb--family reunion), I have often thought that Robert Crumb is similar to Goya...the lines, the mark making and powerfull content...outsiders rendering their dreams and realities, both amazing...the stuff art students everywhere must study...If you do your own story in your art it's all the more special and enriching.
mel (Poore Artiste CoOp Atelier)
I am married to a man who hates to read. I've seen him pick up a book maybe twice in ten years and he'll flip through magazines, but he really hates to read. I love to read and am in graduate school for library science right now. Many of my fellow students are huge graphic novel fans so I started asking around, thinking perhaps this is something my husband would enjoy. I checked out a number of graphic novels for him and focused on novels around World War II especially, one of his interest areas in watching the History Channel, for example. He has read every one of them cover to cover. It's absolutely amazing! I am so thankful to have this option available to capture the imagination of someone who hates to read, but I think a lot of it is intimidation at the size of novels and the small print, etc. Here the amount of text is limited and the illustrations are so fabulous it helps people who may have limited visualization abilities.
Just want to say thank you to all the artists and writers - great work!
jesswil28 nailed the best reason for graphic novels to explode; they're wonderful teaching tools. My dad got me a box of comics when I was 4, and a year later I was reading. Reading a graphic novel is like watching television in slow motion with the sound off, a young dude told me.
What a great tool for teaching literacy ...
I always thought "graphic" novels meant X rated... I was introduced to my first graphic novel by my daughter's 2nd grade class last year. At Irvington School last year the 2nd graders voted for their own Calecott Award (for artists) the book that won was The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It was awesome! I took it to a "girls weekend" and all the adults read the whole book over the weekend. I will read more!
PS Thanks for NOT doing politics, I'm burned out!!!!
Three items to mention:
1) The graphic novel introduction to Google's new browser, by Scott McCloud
2) The "Steal Back Your Vote" based on the work by Robert Kennedy, Jr., and Greg Palast. http://www.stealbackyourvote.org/
3) Scott McCloud's huge non-fiction trilogy work ABOUT comics/graphic novels:
Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics. See
I think the secret behind the success of manga is moe (pronounced MO-eh). It is basically the style of drawing characters with big eyes, small pointy noses and mouths and angular chins as well as their personalities. Moe is a Japanese concept attributed to manga that describes a characters ability to invoke a sort of overwhelming desire to protect the character. It is a feeling that is akin to the cuddly feeling one gets when seeing a cute kitten or puppy. In this way, the reader becomes enamored with the character. The style is prevalent in a lot of girls manga as well as some boys manga. Not all manga is moe but it is very commonly used. The attached image is the cover of a manga that is an example of moe.
Nice to have a 'normal' topic to think about again after the last two months.
As the writer/artist of a graphic novel (www.greasemonkeybook.com) I can offer something on this. First, I'll agree with the others that the term 'comic book' has been applied as a negative for far too long. How many times have you heard this sentence: Is this literature or a glorified novel?
What? Never? That's because people don't draw a distinction in that case. Literature is a content term, and Novel is a format term. Ditto 'comic book.' It's a format. In the strictest sense it says nothing about content. But over the years it's become shorthand for 'low art' or 'juvenile fiction.' It doesn't help that the format has been used for precisely those purposes on many occasions.
The reason for this abuse lies in their accessibility. They're not difficult or extraordinarily expensive to make. Therefore, just about anyone with resources can make one. In that way, they are like blogs. Anyone with resources can write a blog. That isn't a value judgment. But you will find that as accessibility goes up, the standards change. And not always for the better. But we certainly gain access to a much greater variety of thought in the bargain.
Anyway, graphic novels are conceptually no better or worse than comics. Some literally are comics in the sense that they offer collections of material previously published as periodicals. But a project that was conceived and executed as a graphic novel has a different aesthetic. It's packaged more like a movie with a distinct story arc that is meant to be self-contained (unless, of course, it's part of a series).
Thus, the biggest difference between comic books and graphic novels lies in the economics of their format. Comic books are usually produced monthly with a cash flow to reflect the schedule. Graphic novels work more like prose novels; there may be an advance (though usually there isn't) with a payoff upon delivery to a publisher and royalties several months later. An original graphic novel almost always represents a huge investment of personal time and passion with no guarantee of compensation. That, in my opinion, makes them all worthy of a second look.
I think even your distinctions blur sometimes. For instance - The Sandman was originally created as a periodical but then later collected into a series of graphic novels - now this does stick to your definition somewhat as this was a broader story, but this is something that I think exists very well as both a "comic book" series and a series of "graphic novels".
As people here find themselves defending the graphic novel format, I find myself asking "what about the comic format?" I think that by many people this has been at least as overlooked as a vehicle for great story telling as the graphic novel has been. As I said before, look at the sandman, or maybe if that's not your thing - ghost world... (Or even, johnny the homicidal maniac - but that's an entirely different - well, let's just say JTHM is different and leave it at that.)
The only distinction I observe IS the format. The story content can be--and in the case of Sandman--is identical.
Comic books definitely have their advantages; it's great fun to plan out a story with a monthly cliffhanger. Can't really do that in a graphic novel, unless it too is published monthly.
Comments are now closed.