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GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life

A Review By: Brian Appleyard

Brian Appleyard is an author of numerous books and is currently a special feature writer, commentator, reviewer and columnist for The Sunday Times. The following article appeared in The Sunday Times on 4 March 2007.

The Image-Soaked Future
Graphic novels are the new literary superheroes, but what’s their secret?

At the Waterstone’s bookshop in Notting Hill, the graphic-novel display table has been abandoned because it had the highest theft rate of any department. In New York, the poet and critic Peter Schjeldahl noted that the graphic-novel sections in bookshops are easily identified by “the young bodies sprawled around it like casualties of a local disaster”. And in The Simpsons, Comic Book Guy is the most alarmingly inadequate of all Springfield’s inhabitants. There is, it seems, still something a bit iffy, not quite right, about books of illustrated stories.

This is odd, because graphic novels are now more respectable than they have ever been. They win literary prizes — Art Spiegelman’s Maus got a Pulitzer — and mainstream accolades — Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was transatlantically chosen by many critics as one of the best books of 2006. They are becoming starry, too: Posy Simmonds is doing a graphic-novel version of A Christmas Carol, and Vic Reeves one of Three Men in a Boat. And they are made into movies. A sequel to Frank Miller’s wild, violent Sin City is in production, and Miller’s 300 is now a film. It’s not just action-packed titles that are making it to the screen: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, is to be filmed, as is the US best-seller Cancer Vixen, a graphic novel by the New Yorker cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto, with Cate Blanchett mooted for the main role.

Furthermore, graphic novels sell. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan sold 17,500 in hardback in the UK, and Joe Sacco’s Palestine 28,000. This is more or less exactly the same range as any new book by big, acclaimed writers of “literary” fiction. Occasionally, they break through: Raymond Briggs sold 200,000 copies of Ethel & Ernest.

First, one rather banal reason for such success must be mentioned — Chinese printers. A few years ago, it became radically cheaper to print in China. For graphic novels, this was a turning point, as they are expensive to produce. The Jonathan Cape boss Dan Franklin, the form’s leading British publisher, estimates that Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, with its fabulously complex and beautiful images, would have had to be sold at between £30 and £40 if printed in the West. Thanks to China, it sells for £18 — a lot, but not vastly out of line with a conventional hardback.

Bottom-line issues aside, what is going on? Paul Gravett sighs when I ask him. The rise of the graphic novel to literary respectability, he points out, is a story that is run every few years. In fact, the form just carries on, whether being noticed by people like me or not. Gravett is our leading authority on these books. If you want to know what to read and how to read it, his Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life is the place to start. But there is something different about this phase, which suggests that these books have finally got under the skin of the mainstream. Having immersed myself in them for a few weeks, I can safely say they got under mine.

So, what are they? There are almost as many versions of the history of the graphic novel as there are graphic novels. They may be said to be one of the earliest creative forms,dating back 20,000 years to the cave paintings at Lascaux, which do, indeed, seem to tell a story in pictures. More conventionally, they may be seen as about 300 years old, with Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress as the supreme progenitor. The late Will Eisner, and a few others, said that graphic novels began in 1978, with the publication of his A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.

But the most balanced view is that, in the West, the modern illustrated story was born in the 19th century, with comic strips appearing in both Britain and America that were, frequently, turned into books. In the 1920s, a francophone version appeared in the form of bande dessinée, best known to us via The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix. In the East, the Japanese manga tradition goes back to the 18th century. It exists today both as a parallel to American comics and as an erotic form. For me, its supreme expression is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the greatest cartoon film I have ever seen. In the 1930s, DC Comics and its rival, Marvel, were founded. They created the most common mainstream view of the comic as a wild fantasy land of superheroes and sci-fi epics. They influence even the most sophisticated of the “respectable” literary graphic novels — though this is often denied. The truth is that Marvel and DC, through Superman, Spider-Man and Captain America, and through superb creative editors such as Stan Lee, invented much of the visual language. Even a work as sophisticated as Jimmy Corrigan would not have been possible without the age of the superheroes.

As a consoling aside, the superheroes, after a long decline, interrupted by the occasional big movie, are making a group comeback. American comics now have a running story about a government attempt to get all resident superheroes to register. The resistance to this move is led, slightly oddly, by Captain America; the supporters are led by Iron Man. I’m with the Captain on this one: a registered superhero doesn’t seem right. Further group action is signalled by the announcement of a movie called Justice League: The New Frontier. The Justice League of America, a DC invention, includes, among others, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. They are, indeed, indestructible, and now they are unionised. I hope it is not a last stand.

The crucial point about both bande dessinée and the products of Marvel/DC is their innocence. They embraced simple values and were always safe for children. This is lost in the cultish darkness of later movie versions of the superheroes, but was fundamental to their comic-book incarnations. And in the attempt to break free from the restrictive demands of innocence, the modern graphic novel was born. “Cartoonists were actually expected to keep a lid on their psyches and personal histories,” Spiegelman says, “or at least disguise and sublimate them into diverting entertainments.” Yet it was a hard pose to maintain. Gravett points out that even in the innocent comic golden age of the 1950s, there were “cracks in the mask”. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts may have been innocent on the surface, but beneath it was full of “inadequacy, disappointment and melancholy”. The brilliance of Schulz was to do this so simply and so well that the anguish and the innocence became the same thing — a very deep truth indeed. But the cracked mask was ripped off and burnt in the 1960s. Robert Crumb, with dazzling graphic brilliance, turned the world of Disney, DC and Marvel into the world of sex’n'drugs’n'rock’n'roll. The new superhero was the tripped-out freak who just kept on truckin’. And with the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Gilbert Shelton showed what the Justice League would have become had they been introduced to a ton of weed cut with a truckload of acid at a sufficiently early stage. From now on, there were no no-go areas in the comic world.

Gravett identifies 1972 as the year in which the 1960s radicalisation of comics broke through, with Justin Green’s Binky Meets the Holy Virgin Mary — “an astonishing self-flagellation of Catholic guilt and obsessive-compulsive disorder”. Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, an agonised reflection on the Holocaust, appeared in 1986. They established the new wave’s key theme: confessionalauto-biography. With its strong adolescent following, the graphic novel would centre on the exposure of the author’s self.

This remains a dominant theme in current works. Satrapi’s Persepolis is a directly autobiographical account of the author’s experiences growing up in Iran, through revolution, war and tyranny. Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen is subtitled A True Story and deals with her experiences of breast cancer. It’s Sex and the City laced with lethal illness. Charles Burns’s Black Hole uses the Buffy the Vampire Slayer technique of externalising teen trauma as horror. And Bechdel’s Fun Home — unquestionably the best graphic novel I have read so far — concerns the author’s way of coping with her lesbianism.

The number of women who have taken to graphic novels is striking. Superheroes, sci-fi and the Crumb-Shelton-Green phase were all essentially masculine. Wonder Woman was a token, and not a very plausible one at that. But with the form’s expansion, women have found that it works to expose deeper layers or relationships, identity and history. In fact, many themes flogged to death in the conventional novel are revitalised by the addition of pictures.

I find Bechdel the best. Graphically, she is genuinely innovative. Her use of maps to show the geography of the action is quite brilliant. She is also a gifted storyteller. Fun Home is replete with the deep narrative tension of a very good novel. Ware is a more refined graphic artist, but Jimmy Corrigan’s gloom is too repetitive and oppressive.

So, why is this rebirth of the serious graphic novel different? Because this new wave arrives when the ascendancy of the image — presciently described by George Steiner, in 1971, in his book In Bluebeard’s Castle — has begun to dwarf the power of the word. The visual arts are booming. The screen fills our lives through television, cinema and computers. Thanks to computers, even when we are obliged to read words, we expect them to be arranged in helpful modules, with plenty of graphics. The computer normalises the graphic novel as a form. The graphical user interface may one day be seen as the most important invention of our time. Through such devices, the imperial image reigns and is, more successfully than ever before, invading the book.

Good thing, bad thing? Who knows? For me, these books are hard work. I can’t relax into their images in my mind, as I do with a conventional novel. The author’s versions keep dragging me back. But I guess they’re not for me. They’re for the kids sprawling in the graphic-novels section.

They, and Comic Book Guy, own the image-soaked future.


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My Books

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
All artwork © the respective copyright holders.