GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life
A Review By: International Journal of Comic Art
The following review by Derek Parker Royal appeared in International Journal of Comic Art Vol.12 No. 1, in Spring 2010.
The most successful recent introductions to graphic novels are those published by Collins Design. Both Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Everything You Need To Know and Gene Kannenberg, Jr.‘s 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide are well-designed books filled with an abundance of colour reproductions on glossy page stock. However, the visuals are not the only selling points of these two guides. Gravett, and especially Kannenberg, provide a wealth of information that is easy to navigate, presenting their evaluative systems in ways that bind their diverse selections into cohesive and integrative texts. With its larger 11” x 9.3” dimensions and its image-heavy format, Gravett’s Graphic Novels might almost be seen as a coffee table book (and if it were published with a hardcover, it could easily be marketed as one). But its content makes it more than mere eye candy. Gravett structures his text around 30 graphic novels from a variety of genres, and then he divides his analyses into ten different topic- or genre-related chapters. After a few introductory words that provide a thematic context, each of the chapters presents excerpts from and detailed discussions of between two and four of the 30 texts, highlighting each graphic novel’s themes, its layout and composition, and its history. Following each “in focus” analysis, as it is called, are briefer references to four other graphic novels that are thematically similar and serve as suggestions for further reading. So in all, Gravett presents what he sees as 150 of the most significant graphic novels created, a significantly wider sweep than those provided by [Stephen] Weiner [The 101 Best Graphic Novels] or [Danny] Fingeroth [Rough Guide to Graphic Novels].
At the same time, Graphic Novels does have its weaker moments. For example, the opening chapter, “Things to Hate about Comics”, contains an all-too-brief introduction to the form - its history as well as its cultural baggage - and reads in part as a defensive posture against resisting readers. What is more, Gravett skirts many of the issues in discussing the term “graphic novel”, falling back instead on Eddie Campbell’s comments that the “graphic novel signifies a movement rather than a form” and that “there is nothing to be gained by defining it.” It is understandable that in a book like this, targeted at a broad readership, the author might want to avoid any involved or convoluted arguments surrounding the taxonomy of “graphic novel”. At the same time, is this not the responsibility that Gravett, as well as the other authors reviewed here, assumes when taking on the task of writing an introductory guide on graphic novels? Even if certain readers and educators have little problem with the term “graphic novel”, many artists and comics scholars do, and it would be beneficial to present these debates more fully. Still, Gravett’s textual annotations and organization more than make up for the book’s evasive manoeuverings. With its many entries - covering a wide range of comics from Watchmen to Gemma Bovery, from Osamu Tezuka to Jim Woodring, and from fantasy to autobiography - Graphic Novels is one of the best introductions to the comics medium and its graphic novel form.