Because I didn’t have $500 to spend on graphic novels.
It’s Sunday dinner at my husband’s ninety-two-year-old grandmother’s house, and the topic of graphic novels comes up. My cousin-in-law—who is sort of my intellectual sparring partner; we debate everything from whether women who wear burqas are being subjugated to whether social media is dangerous—declares that graphic novels can’t be literature, can’t measure up to a book like Lolita, for example. (Why this is his go-to book, I’m not sure.)
His argument has something to do with time, with the idea that a text that doesn’t require a lot of time to read and understand can’t have the same impact as a book that makes you slow down, question, and consider all the implications. His argument also has something to do with judging the genre by its audience. He thinks comic book lovers and graphic novel aficionados aren’t very deep or literate. He thinks they’re dorks.
So I start out in defensive mode. I explain that graphic novels and comics can be just as literary, deep, and complex as any other type of literature. I list all the graphic novels I’ve read at this point, which is exactly five: Maus, Watchmen, The Borden Tragedy, Fun Home, and Ghost World. Well, six if you count Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, which is more theory than novel, but counts nonetheless.
I realize that I’m not really versed enough in this mode to take an authoritative stance, so I consult my new personal comics resource, Diana Schutz, the recently retired editor of Dark Horse Comics, who is auditing my poetry class this term and has just become my colleague at Clackamas Community College as part of our new comics studies program.
The first thing I learn from Diana is that graphic novels are both literature and something else. They fall between categories. They are both art and prose, text and image, and readers of graphic novels have to be able to read words and pictures, so their literacy is challenged on multiple levels.
Yes, this sounds right.
Diana gives me a list of graphic novels* to try out, and I head to the bookstore.
It’s a rainy spring day in Portland, and I’m sitting in Powell’s cafe with a stack of graphic novels that Diana recommended to me. They’re all beautiful in their own way. I open A Contract with God, read Will Eisner’s preface, and learn how the term “graphic novel” was born:
In 1978, encouraged by the work of the experimental graphic artists Otto Nückel, Franz Masareel and Lynd Ward, who in the 1930s published serious novels told in art without text, I attempted a major work in a similar form. In a futile effort to entice the patronage of a mainstream publisher, I called it a “graphic novel.” It was a collection of four related stories, drawn from memory, which took place in a single tenement in the Bronx. The title of the book, named for the lead story, became A Contract with God. Though no major publisher would touch it at the time, this novel has remained in print for twenty-seven years, and has been published in eleven different languages. (ix-x)
This reminds me of the reception Walt Whitman received when he published Leaves of Grass, albeit Eisner’s book wasn’t quite so violently opposed by his peers. Whitman was fired from his job for writing an indecent book, one critic called it a “mass of stupid filth,” and at least one other poet burned it. The literary authorities of Whitman’s day, just like those in Eisner’s, had accepted a specific definition of what a poem could be, or in Eisner’s case what a novel could be, and they weren’t willing to broaden or question that definition without a fight.
When I taught Intro to Fiction, my students read Ghost World and mostly concluded that, even though the book asks interesting questions about modernity and adulthood and capitalism, it’s still not as good as a “real” book that doesn’t show the readers how to imagine the characters and scenes in their heads. Something about the pictorial storytelling bothered them. They wanted to do the imaginative work of picturing the characters and settings in the story. It wasn’t literature, most of them decided.
I’m not convinced. I really think this group didn’t like Ghost World because it was a little slow, didn’t include a typical plot progression, and not a lot happened to the two main characters. In other words, it’s subtle, and they’re not used to subtle. Subtle requires a bit more work on the part of the reader, which, ironically, is exactly what they said they wanted. It’s possible that the book was just a little too literary for their taste.
Other students argued that they had to read the book twice, once for fun and once to look for details in the pictures after I gave them an article about how to read graphic novels similar to this one. These students admitted that they missed a lot of meaning and nuance when they read the book the first time, before they understood the significance of things like panel borders and facial expressions within the context of the story.
Graphic novels do something traditional novels don’t. They form an intimate and absorbing relationship with the reader when we get to see the world exactly as the author/artist intended. It’s not about accuracy. It’s about connection. We might lose some of our imaginative space, but we gain insight into someone else’s world. Will Eisner says look at my neighborhood, and we enter Dropsie Avenue through his eyes in the pages of A Contract with God; through the lines he’s drawn we get to walk through the New York City tenements as he lived them, not as we imagine them, and there’s power in that.
I think about what literature is. Actually, after three degrees in English and fifteen years teaching it, I’m not sure what literature is, so I look it up. According to Dictionary.com, literature is “writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.”
In the Harper’s article “What is Literature,” the author Arthur Krystal quotes author Terry Eagleton’s argument that literature “can’t really sustain an overarching definition, since there is nothing verbally peculiar to a literary work, and no single feature or set of features is shared by all literary theories.”
Krystal says that literature is “a record of one human being’s sojourn on earth, proffered in verse or prose that artfully weaves together knowledge of the past with a heightened awareness of the present in ever new verbal configurations.” And if this is so, how does an accompanying image detract from this artfulness of poetry or prose? How does it degrade the work?
This really boils down to a snobby argument about the hierarchy between the image and the word and the assumption that the word is somehow better than the image. Scott McCloud explains, in his book Understanding Comics, that a realistic image like a photograph is received information while iconography like a smiley face or the word “FACE” is perceived information, allowing for more interpretation. Received information is more accurate while perceived information is more interpretive. Neither of these is necessarily better. It all depends on the context and the intention of the author.
This struggle for literary merit reminds me of the old argument about speech being better than written language that Derrida tried to deconstruct. The notion was that speech is directly representative of thought and writing is a symbolic representation of speech, so writing is further removed from its origin: thought. Therefore, writing is less based in reality. I think most of us would disagree with this notion now, or we can at least see that both forms of communication are valid and important and powerful. (I mean, would you really still be listening to me if I was trying to tell you all of this?)
Marjane Satrapi, the artist and author of Persepolis, says this about her craft: “Graphic novels are not traditional literature, but that does not mean they are second-rate. Images are a way of writing. When you have the talent to be able to write and draw, it seems a shame to choose one. I think it’s better to do both.”
I now have a bookshelf just for graphic novels in my house. It currently holds about a dozen books (The three not pictured are on my nightstand.), those I bought at Powell’s, a few I already had, and some Diana gave me. Some of them are artsy and impressionistic. Some are intimate; others are loud and frenetic. They each record our “sojourn on earth” with a unique set of tools and representations for the existential questions we all ache to understand. At night, I fall asleep reading them and dream in their shapes and colors. They influence my reality the way a good poem stays on the tongue and in the heart for a long time…the way any good literature bites us and sets us free.
*Here is the list of graphic novels Diana gave me. The order and parentheticals next to each title are hers:
- Craig Thompson, Blankets (quintessential coming-of-age)
- Will Eisner, A Contract with God (seminal work, kickstarted the graphic novel format)
- Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (brought superheroes to public awareness)
- Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons! (exquisite memoir, coming-of-age)
- Joe Sacco, Safe Area Gorazde (comics journalism)
- David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp (a formal tour-de-force)
- Mary & Bryan Talbot, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (Mary Talbot’s coming-of-age interspersed with that of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James)
- Seth, It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken (a cartoonist’s search for meaning)
- Harvey Pekar with Joyce Brabner, Our Cancer Year (first graphic novel by comics’ first autobiographer)
- Gabrielle Bell, The Voyeurs (memoir)
- Paul Hornschemeier, Mother, Come Home (fiction that reads like memoir)
- Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (should really be subtitled The Saddest Kid on Earth)
- David B., Epileptic (memoir of this French author’s life with an epileptic brother)
- Charles Burns, Black Hole (adolescence as the horror story it kinda is)
- Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (memoir in the throes of the Iranian Revolution)
- Gilbert Hernandez, Heartbreak Soup (Latino magic realism comes to comics)