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GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life

A Review By: Michel Faber

The following comments by the author Michel Faber, who reviewed Great British Comics in The Guardian last November, relate to his recent purchase of Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life and come from an unsolicited email sent by him to Paul Gravett.

Graphic Novels is excellent and you should be proud of it. Overall, Great British Comics is the greater achievement, principally because GBC has the same number of pages to examine a much denser amount of material, with fearsome pressure to keep a sense of overall historical/sociological development/perspective. However, I think you did a superb job on GN, and I’m especially impressed with the ‘mini-reviews’ of each graphic novel, which, in a mere 100 words each, consistently capture the essence of the thing. And, as with GBC, there is plentiful evidence of your skills as a writer (I loved your description of Tom of Finland’s stuff as ‘short on plot, but long on erections’). I was particularly impressed with your theory that America’s 1950s obsession with vengeful corpses might have been the collective conscience’s ‘warning that we cannot bury and forget the wartime inhumanities that we committed’.

Also, as with GBC, the cover was a perfect choice. Clowes’s portrait of Theda is uncompromisingly a COMIC (no attempt to compete with photography or ‘fine art’, as would’ve been the issue if you’d chosen Windsor-Smith, McKean, Schuiten, etc). Yet it has the spark of authentic human life (emphatically unlike a cartoon that only symbolises/hints at humanity rather than embodying it). And Theda’s stare is confrontational and self-assured, as if she’s thinking, ‘I know my value and I don’t care if other people recognise it, but if you are able to recognise it, then you’ll find me interesting’ -  the message of the medium itself. The bow in her hair suggests a vestigial link with cutesy childhood, the mark on the cheek suggests damage, the eyes have seen more than they should have, the pylons and telephone wires in the background suggest a grim environment that fails to nurture its citizens. All very appropriate to many of the best graphic novels.

Your “In Focus” and “Following On From…” profiles are mostly very illuminating. Inevitably, in a book that presents so many different artistic sensibilities to a single reader with his/her own individual wavelength, some graphic novels will come across more readily than others. For example, because I have no difficulty getting onto Raymond Briggs’s wavelength, I found the summary of When The Wind Blows unnecessarily over-explained, as though someone were patiently analysing an Aesop fable whose meaning is abundantly clear at a glance, whereas I could imagine the précis of Sandman leaving many readers no wiser as to the meaning of this hermetic, cliquey narrative. I also felt that there was a disproportionate amount of text about Hugo Pratt/Corto Maltese, as though a newspaper/magazine feature article had been shoehorned into the book.

These are quibbles, however. I was delighted overall, and there are now many more graphic novels that I want to investigate.


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