Monday, July 25, 2011

How a Middle-Aged Mom Learned to Love the Graphic Novel

I have been a reader and booklover from my daddy's knee, but I had never really embraced the comic book. Sure, I had read them as a kid, but I had never understood their appeal after reaching adulthood. Memories of the graphic novels I had read over the shoulder of my friends in high school lingered, and turned me against the genre for its gore and misogyny.

 But somewhere in the last few years, I picked up a graphic novel again. I think it was our public library's renovation, after which they wisely placed the graphic novel section between audiobooks and classic novels, the places I gravitated most. I started skimming through them. Some of them were the male adolescent fantasies I had remembered, tedious melodrama as pretext for porny women and viscera. But there were others. Some of them were darn good stories.

So I asked a comic-book-loving friend to point me in the right direction, and the first book he suggested was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Wow. This was a comic book for grown-ups. The drawings (art? pictures? I am so out-of-the-loop on graphic novels that I don't know the standard terms) were black-and-white and simple, but they added to the story.  They grew the tension in the story, and the last panel knocked me flat.

I think my next novel was Gene Yuen Lang's American-Born Chinese. I had never imagined that a nuanced theology of God and identity could be worked out in a comic book. Now I was hooked.

Since then I have tried different authors. I've found some I loved (Lilli Carre), some I loved to share with the kids (David Petersen's Mouseguard), and others I hated. And since bloggers are always looking for something to blog about, I thought I would explain what graphic novels have to offer that traditional narrative can't.

1) Silence. For many of us, silence is a necessary part of enjoying a book, and we see reading as a quiet activity. But traditional narrative can only convey its story by putting words into your head, however quietly. Even a description of silence cannot move you without using actual words. But a graphic novel, by using pictures instead of words, can use silence in a way that traditional narrative can't. Graphic novels offer a silence that includes mental wordlessness. It can be difficult to "read" this - it takes discipline to slow down the eye enough to feel the impact of the picture. But once you do, it affects you in new ways. You can have wordless reactions to wordless stories; still felt, but difficult to describe. Graphic novels let you experience literature in places beyond the reach of words.

2) Simultaneity. For traditional narrative to describe two things happening simultaneously, it has to stop describing one thing in order to describe another. Graphic novels can convey simultaneity by using two different media at the same time. The words tell you one thing while the picture tells you something else at the same time. Pure simultaneity is still out of reach - your eye has to dance back and forth between word and picture - but graphic novels can come closer than other print literature.

3) Paradox. Related to the above, graphic novels can immediately convey a meaning opposite to the words being said. A character can claim sobriety while the picture portrays his drinking. Unlike silence and simultaneity, this is also possible for traditional narrative. The difference, I think, is that conveying paradox in traditional literature often requires a skillful reader or a rereading. Graphic novels can convey paradox with more immediacy. Maybe this is why the hypocrisy of people in power is such a common theme in graphic novels; the medium assists the message.

Graphic novels pose their own challenges. I have to store my books on a high shelf out of reach of the kids, for instance. While there is no harm done if a non-reading child picks up narrative literature too old for her, graphic novels are a different thing. I would not always want to explain what that picture means. And when I look for new books, I still have to sift out the gore and misogyny I hate. But the genre is a permanent part of my library now, and I look forward to finding new books and new authors.

Now if you'll excuse me, my laptop is resting on a copy of Jim McCann and Janet Lee's Return of the Dapper Men, and I haven't read it yet.


  1. I am really glad you wrote this. All summer, I've been wondering why my eldest child's summer reading list for school included the graphic novel version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, adapted by Peter Kuper.

    She read it for Honor's English. I was wondering what "Honors" means these days...but I can see the value, thanks to your post. She loved it, by the way. Link here:

    I'm going to ask her if I can borrow it.

  2. Excellently written piece, and superb insight into the act of reading a graphic novel. I'd never thought about simultaneity before--that feeling of being in real-time when you read a comic--but you're exactly right. There's a dynamic there that I find similar to the motion picture.

    Your transition from being (rightfully) revolted by the subject matter of way too many graphic novels to appreciating the mode of storytelling they employ brings up another interesting point--the validity of a medium being eclipsed by the content. There's nothing inherently inferior about the medium of comics (or as Scott McCloud calls it, "sequential art"), but for so long it was only used to convey vulgar kid stuff. Now the medium seems to be growing up a bit, and I'm a big believer in the idea that it can tackle just as weighty a dollop of subject matter as any other medium... and in some ways, do it better.

  3. I'm teaching a graphic novel for the first time this year in a first-year fiction survey course - I will bookmark this post to come back to, if you don't mind that you've just written most of my first lecture for me!

  4. Use as you like, Bea. So what graphic novel are you including?

  5. Oh, I LOVE the graphic novels! Thanks for explaining why I like them so much.

    You should read Smile by Raina Telgemeier (good for self-concious middles as well). The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Neffenegger is strange but compelling for a book lover. I'd imagine you've read Maus, a good starting point. Also, check out Fables - they are fun reads if you enjoy fairy tales.

    What others have you read? Always looking for good ones. Our library is great about getting any them in!

    Good post, thanks!

  6. Lovedlovedloved Persepolis! :) I'll have to try out some of the others you mentioned!

  7. Maus. I don't actually know how to read graphic novels (I tend to skip the pictures and get lost), so that's the only one I've managed to read. I'm feeling a bit underqualified.

  8. It helps to read it like poetry: just assume I'll need to read it twice.

  9. Anonymous7/30/2011

    I, too, have learned to love graphic novels, although without thinking it through quite so much. But I LOVED Persepolis. Have you seen the film? Amazingly, I liked it even better. It's gorgeous.

  10. My favorites are the Y: The Last Man series.

    And I believe the proper term is "illustrations," BTW.