In my Part 2 I have discussed Will Eisner‘s work and how it was unique in its style. This inspired other artists in starting to deal with serious subjects using the comic book medium. These artists started experimenting with the graphic novel until they were comfortable enough to use the medium to talk about serious, adult topics no one would have imagined to see in comic book form. Just like a novel would create the drama or atmosphere or the setting for the author’s message to be sent across the entire book, the graphic novel is used as a vessel to channel the writer/artist’s message. In the graphic novel, the reader experiences a more natural style of narrative. Using the visuals in various ways, a story can be given different tones.
Sure, there are a lot of bad comics out there: derivative stuff, plots on autopilot, oversexualized representations of women, unrealistic expectations, you name it. But comics can also be used to say something meaningful. This can also be said for books. Why are some books considered as literature while others are just Saturday afternoon reads? By exploring some of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels I want to argue in favour of comics being treated with the same respect and importance as other pieces of literature. By doing so, I hope to inspire more readers to explore the Graphic Novel format and also highlight the benefits of reading comics in general. We have gone past the point of asking which form is better because most people now agree that in both mediums one finds great pieces of literature whether, it is a book or a comic. Here I have listed some of the graphic novels you’ll generally hear in a conversation about comics as literature for various reasons. I personally like to label them like what Jonathan H. Liu from ‘Geek Dad’ calls them; “Serious comics”. These were indeed a new breed of comics as they paved the way for more experimentation with the format of comics. Granted that some titles I have listed here might not be suitable for children but they are only the tip of the argument.
I would like to start by taking a close look at Maus by Art Spiegelman, the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Price. This is the story of the writer’s father, Vladek, and his experiences in World War II. It also deals with the relationship of Spiegleman and his father. When it was first published, people immediately realised that this was not the usual comic book. In fact a special category was created for it to be eligible for the Pulitzer. In the book, Jews appear as mice and Germans as cats. Other ethnicities turn up as various other animals, though with perhaps less symbolic significance. The style of the book allows the reader to easily process the story. Imagine how difficult it would have been to read the story if the cartoonish appearances were replaced by realistically-drawn humans. It would make the reading too intense. The story is entwined with the frame tale of Art interviewing and interacting with his father.
The subject matter is already a serious one and the fact that Spiegleman chose to tell his story in a comic book format was quite an audacious choice. The use of the medium here highlights the emotional and gravity of the narrative. In fact, Joseph Witek, author of ‘Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar’, credit it with changing the public’s perception of what comics could be at a time when, in the English-speaking world, they were considered to be for children, and strongly associated with superheroes. In her 2008 book ‘From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books’, Arie Kaplan talks about how Maus was considered as one of the “Big Three” book-form comics from around 1986-1987, along with ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ that are said to have brought the term graphic novel and the idea of comics for adults into mainstream consciousness.
The volume of academic work published on Maus far surpasses that of any other work of comics. Maus is considered an important work of Holocaust literature, and studies of it have made significant contributions to Holocaust studies.
The book also makes a sensitive and difficult subject accessible to reluctant readers especially when it comes to students. The fact that such a dark spot in human history is narrated through the lives of animals in a comic book format gives it an allure that attracts people of all sorts to read it.
Another graphic novel that in my opinion has the same gravitas as Maus is ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. ‘Watchmen’ is supposed to be a superhero story set in an alternate-history version of our world, one in which Richard Nixon is president again after being elected for the 3rd time. The USA is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, and the superheroes are men and women who dress up and enact vigilante justice without any superpower. Except of course Dr. Manhattan whom by an accident achieved god-like abilities but has also become somewhat disassociated from the human race. I know what you are thinking. How can I compare Maus, a story about something so dark and humanly emotional to a story about a bunch of crime fighters? My point is that the main story is not so important as much as the individual characters on how intricate and damaged each and every hero is. In fact by the end of the book you can barely call them heroes, as each one has dark spots in their past. However, there is something humane about each character that each can relate to. Moore uses the mystery of a killer who is killing off the heroes to explore each character in detail and how that reflects on society.
Watchmen‘s structure centres on large and small symmetries. The chapters that advance the plot alternate with biographical chapters about individual characters. Within the story, there are symmetries and reflections everywhere, most spectacularly in the fifth chapter, which is visually symmetrical back to front: the chapter’s first page is laid out as the mirror image of its last, and so on, with every major element of every panel’s composition reflected on the other side of the story. The thematic anchors of the ninth chapter are the two moments in which one character sees her reflection, first in a snow globe and later in a bottle of perfume called nostalgia, and understands who she really is, in that moment straight out of Jacques Lacan’s theory about the “mirror stage” and the “imaginary order”.
While Gibbons’ artwork appears, on the surface, to look like a lot of other comics, closer examination shows a remarkable attention to detail and specifics of layout, using images rather than text to foreshadow and convey meaning.
Geoff Klock author of ‘How to read superhero comics and why’, explains that a lot of the subject matter makes more sense during the height of the Cold War than it does now. The driving force behind the entire book is the fear of nuclear holocaust; the symbol of the Doomsday Clock (set at five minutes until midnight) can be found all over the book. Even the iconic smiley face with the blood spatter is really a clock face with a red hand about to signal our doom. Much of this feels outdated now, but it means that ‘Watchmen’ is a contemporary perspective on the Cold War: what did it feel like to live in a world that was always a step away from nuclear war? Even though it’s fiction, much of the tension feels real.
‘Watchmen’ is definitely not for kids: there is sex, violence, abuse, murder, and the list goes on. The women in the book could have been better written; sometimes the smiley face motif gets a bit old. But I’d still include it on a “must-read” list of serious comics, simply because of the fact that it pushed the boundaries of storytelling in the comic’s medium, introducing some techniques that simply could not be done in any other medium.
The most obvious reason for which ‘Watchmen’ is tethered to comics is the fact that it’s specifically about comics’ form and content and readers’ preconceptions of what happened in a comic book story. Beneath that surface, it relies on being a comic book for its crucial sense of time and chronology. The amount of time the reader has to spend working through the story isn’t the same as the amount of time the events in the story encompass (it’s longer) and the direction in which the reader experiences the story isn’t linear but keeps skipping backwards to revisit the past, as the narrative does.
This novel is thought provoking, making the readers think about the implications and if they agree with how the story concludes. Something that raises so many ethical and moral issues has to be of some importance in a literary sense. This is the perfect example of how a comic book about superheroes can be more than that.
The same applies for Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’. Like ‘Watchmen’, ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’ is a child of the ’80s. There are Cold War fears and media oversaturation. Throughout the book there are panels of talking heads, arguing and blathering about Batman and his influence on society. The plot involves Bruce Wayne’s return to crime fighting, as Batman, after a ten-year retirement. He’s old, and all the superheroes have been forced underground but as things have gotten worse Batman can’t stay hidden. The book feels more like a building storm than a storyline that’s taking you somewhere: the tension builds and builds and finally explodes into chaos. Of course, Batman has a plan. He always does.
What Miller does in the ‘Dark knight Returns’ is that he really teases out Batman’s unwillingness to compromise, contrasted with our own insecurities and tendency to hope everything will just blow over if we ignore it. At any rate, the Dark Knight series is certainly not intended for kids, but essential reading for adult Batman fans.
‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’ and its sequel ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again’ both have political elements in them in which Miller criticises why the American dream gets twisted into something alien and unrecognizable by politics. The same can be argued for ‘Watchmen’ and another book ‘V for Vendetta’ by Alan Moore and illustrated mostly by David Lloyd. Though it is based in England, not America, and talks about a different subject, it is still a very political graphic novel. In the case of ‘V for Vendetta’ we see the two conflicting political viewpoints of anarchism and fascism. The Norsefire regime shares every facet of fascist ideology: it is highly xenophobic, rules the nation through both fear and force, and worships strong leadership. As in most fascist regimes, there are several different types of state organizations which engage in power struggles with each other but which yet obey the same leader. V, meanwhile, ultimately strives for a “free society” ordered by its own consent.
The series was Moore’s first use of the densely detailed narrative and multiple plot lines that would feature heavily in ‘Watchmen’. Panel backgrounds are often crammed with clues and red herrings; literary allusions and wordplay are prominent in the chapter titles and in V’s speech.
V himself remains something of an enigma whose history is only hinted at. The bulk of the story is told from the viewpoints of other characters: V’s admirer and apprentice Evey, a 16-year-old factory worker; Eric Finch, a world-weary and pragmatic policeman who is hunting V; and several contenders for power within the fascist party. V’s destructive acts are morally ambiguous, and a central theme of the series is the rationalization of atrocities in the name of a higher goal, whether it is stability or freedom. The character is a mixture of an actual advocate of anarchism and the traditional stereotype of the anarchist as a terrorist.
Moore has never clarified V’s precise background and he points out that V’s identity is never revealed in the book. The ambiguity of the V character is a running theme through the work, which leaves readers to determine for themselves whether V is sane or psychotic, hero or villain. Before donning the Guy Fawkes mask herself, Evey comes to the conclusion that V’s identity is unimportant compared to the role he plays, making his identity itself the idea he embodies.
A book like ‘V for vendetta’ provokes the readers to think for themselves, to evaluate the book they are reading and to question if the protagonists are good or evil. The medium chosen to provoke such discussions is a comic book. Does this hinder or improve the experience? Only if you actually pick up the book and read it can you truly understand what the comic book brings to such a story.
Let’s look at another example of how a subject can benefit from the comic book format. I would like to talk to you about ‘Epileptic’ by David B. This book is hard to categorize as it talks about what it means to be epileptic using the comic book format as a memoir. The story is a true story but the illustrations are not strictly true, at least in a literal sense. The author’s older brother has epilepsy and this disorder takes over not only his life but the whole family’s as they try everything, from surgery to voodoo to try and cure him.
David imagines the epilepsy as a giant lizard that pierces his brother, or as a mountain to be climbed, or as a contagious darkness that spreads to himself and his family. The drawings are beautiful and disturbing; some of it has an Edward Gorey feel to it, but it’s hard to draw comparisons to anything else I’ve seen. Perhaps the best description of the book is a line he uses himself: “And life goes on, a little on the gray side.”
The chronology is a bit hard to follow at times, since he jumps forward and backwards without warning, but he manages to create an overall tone of his life. If there remains any doubt that comics can be serious literature and serious art, this book will change your mind.
This book is also a very clear demonstration of what comics can do, as drawn narratives that require the reader’s imagination to play along, that nothing else can. And it’s impossible to imagine it being adapted into any other medium; to lose the specific work of B.’s drawing would be to lose ‘Epileptic; itself.
As we have seen with ‘Epileptic’ comics can deal with real life topics which can be hard to convey using words alone. I can assure you that there are a multitude of titles out there which deal with a whole world of different topics in either serious or parodical manner and in comic book format. I want to finish on something that I think we all could benefit from. The book; ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan has a large hardcover and looks like a picture book but the illustrations are arranged in panels and that tell a chronological story. And the images do tell the story here, because there are no words. A father packs for a journey, saying goodbye to his wife and young daughter, and travels to a faraway land by train, ship, and then by a weird flying balloon. The world he comes to is foreign and alien: he cannot read the signs, he doesn’t understand the language, and he can’t be sure how anything works. But he meets other immigrants who tell him their own stories, and help him find his way in this new land. And then, eventually, his family arrives as well and there is a joyful reunion.
What makes ‘The Arrival’ so perfect is the way that Tan uses surrealism to show how bizarre a new country can be. The food, the animals, the transportation, the trees – nothing is familiar, and Tan exaggerates this by making things that would be foreign to all of us, putting us in the shoes of the protagonist.
Although only a small portion of the book is actually about the man’s relationship with his family, that portion is emotionally intense. Tan is able to convey, with a detail here and an expression there, how this man loves his family so much that he would go off into the unknown to make a better life for them.
As you can see there are comic books and then there are Comic Books. What I tried to show in this article is that if you look hard enough you will find graphic novels that are more than just pretty pictures and stories. Some of the best written stories in the graphic novel format should be considered as literature and not dismissed just because they are a comic book. I have explained it in my first article that comic books are just the vessel for a message and that message depends on the author. If you read comics you most probably read books as well. That is what comic books do. They excite the mind and inspire us to search for more. I am both an avid comic book and a book reader and I can never say that one is superior to the other because both bring something totally different to the table. When it comes to literature and education I believe that both media should be given the opportunity to shine as not every student and child appreciates literature in the same way. Comics offer a visually stimulating option for those who want something different than a book, since, as we have seen, if it is a good comic book, then there is nothing wrong with that.
Duncan, R., & Smith, M. J. (2009). The power of comics: History, form and culture. United States of America: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
Fingeroth, D. (2008). The rough guide to graphic novels, Rough Guides Limited.
Kaplan, A. (2008). From krakow to krypton: Jews and comic books. Jewish Publication Society.
Klock, G. (2002). How to read superhero comics and why Bloomsbury Academic.
Kripal, J. J. (2011). Mutants and mystics: Science fiction, superhero comcis, and the paranormal, University Of Chicago Press.
Liu, J., Blum, M. & Denmead, K. (2013). Geek dad, raising geek generation 2.0. Retrieved, 2013, from http://www.wired.com/geekdad/
Loman, A. (2010). The canonization of maus. In P. Williams, & J. Lyons (Eds.), The rise of the american comics artist: Creators and contexts ()
Maurice, H. (1999). In Maurice H. (Ed.), The world encyclopedia of comics Chelsea House.
McCloud , S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art, William Morrow Paperbacks.
Morrison, G. (2011). Supergods: What masked vigilantres, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from smallville can teach us about being human, Spiegel & Grau.
White, M. D. (2008). In Arp R. (Ed.), Batman and philosophy: The dark knight of the soul, John Wiley & Sons.
White, M. D., Robichaud, C., & M. Held, J. (2009). In Irwin W. (Ed.), Watchmen and philosophy: A rorschach test, John Wiley & Sons.
Wolk, D. (2007). Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean Da Capo Press.