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.