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GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life

A Review By: Robert C. Harvey

Robert C. Harvey has been writing about cartooning for well over a quarter of a century, and has authored several books about cartooning.

And here’s undoubtedly the best book about graphic novels to sashay this way in a long while: Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Knowby Paul Gravett (192 9x11-inch pages in glorious color; paperback, $24.95). And it lives up to its ambitious title. If you have trouble keeping up on this rapidly expanding literary genre this book will take you a long way to sweet sanity and lucid comprehension. It’s part history and part appreciation and all orientation and thoughtful guidance. Its twelve chapters divide the graphic novel universe into thematic clusters superheroicism, crime, comedy, and the like. Each chapter opens with a 2-4 page essay that mixes history and explication. After that comes a two-page introduction to a landmark graphic novel. The superhero chapter uses Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Gravett prints 4-5 pages of the book, with marginal notes that point out the principal plot developments while dropping a clue or two about how to interpret and integrate into the story the visual elements on display. Readers learn about The Dark Knight Returns approaches the subject the pictures and the panels in a graphic novel function to aid and abet the storytelling. Terrific. Who could ask for more? Ah, but there is more. The model graphic novel is then followed by half-page descriptions (including a sample page) of other graphic novels partaking of the same trend case, Miller’s Daredevil, then Weapon X, Powers, and It’s A Bird; in short, a progression that goes from a familiar superhero treatment to less and less familiar ones. The sample pages are a canny touch: they show the artwork, and with graphic novels, the appearance of the drawings is an important factor in convincing a person to read the book. The superheroicism chapter also includes Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a 2-page short examination of five pages (like the Dark Knight introduction), then on successive pages, four more short novel descriptions City, Marshal Law, Promethea, and Planetary. In another chapter, Gravett begins with Jaime Hernandez’s Locas, then goes to Food Boy, Paul Has A Summer Job, My New York Diary, and Maison Ikkoku. And the book ventures beyond these shores, too. After The Airtight Garage, Gravett rambles into Luther Arkwright, Finder, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, and The Invisible Frontier. The Sandman is followed by Bone, Rose, Hellboy, and Kingdom of the Wicked.

In this manner, Gravett manages to nod briefly in the direction of most of the major graphic novels of the last few years hints for understanding the genre based upon pictures and manipulation of visual elements as well as story and plot. I read his two-page introduction to Jimmy Corrigan, which I’ve not read entirely because the fragments I’ve dipped into seem so tedious, and almost at once, I could see, thanks to Gravett’s notations, how Chris Ware manipulates the medium and to what effect, and my appreciation for Ware’s work improved. Ditto Jim Woodring’s Frank stories, which have alwlays baffled me despite my admiration for Woodring’s rendering style. Gravett has constructed his book to function deliberately as a guide to appreciating graphic novels. The opening pages briefly summarize the concepts of thirty important graphic novels Jimmy Corrigan, Frank, The Watchmen. At the end of every one-paragraph description, Gravett refers the reader who wants to know more to the chapter in which the 2-page exegesis takes place, followed by those introductions to other novels in the same vein. Clustering the novels by theme is a useful organizing device very effective orientation to the genre as a whole (by examining its parts, so to speak). And there’s an Index, so if you are looking for insights about a specific title, you can find it if Gravett covers it herein.

Gravett is a sensitive and knowledgeable reader, and he can write succinct and clear prose, too. He actually reveals the aesthetic workings of his subject instead of merely blathering mystically on about it, the practice of too many would-be critics who substitute vocabulary for perception. My only complaint about the book is that the sample pages from graphic novels are necessarily so small that you need special equipment to read the speech balloons. But Gravett is so good at this, that I unholstered my magnifying glass without a single shrug nor snarl. There should be more books like this.


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My Books

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

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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

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