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GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life

A Review By: The Daily Mail

The following review written by Ned Denny appeared in the Daily Mail newspaper on Friday 22 December, 2006.

The comic-book heroes with a touch of genius.

Here’s a good piece of information to have at hand if anyone ever sneers at you for reading ‘comic books’: Goethe was a fan. The story goes that, towards the end of his life, the great poet, novelist and dramatist was shown an unpublished ‘histoire en estampes’ (or ‘story in prints’) by a schoolteacher called Rodolphe Tôpffer. Amazed and delighted by this innovative mode of storytelling, the aged genius is said to have kept repeating: ‘That is really too crazy!’ But his subsequent comments are more revealing still.

‘If Tôpffer did not have such an insignificant text (ie story) before him,’ Goethe is said to have remarked, ‘he would invent things that would surpass all our expectations.’

This anecdote is taken from Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life, edited by Paul Gravett (Aurum, £18.99), a superb introduction to a medium that is finally, as its author suggests, coming into its own. The only question is why has it taken so long? According to Gravett, the years between Tôpffer’s trailblazing 1832 volume and the present-day boom are a catalogue of ‘missed opportunities, unrealised dreams and thwarted possibilities.’

As late as 1969, novelist and one-time cartoonist John Updike was still speaking in terms of the potential of the book-length comic rather than its actual achievements (‘I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic-strip novel masterpiece.’).

Likewise, Salvador Dali’s prediction that ‘comics will be the culture of the year 3794’ located the genre’s geniuses in a vague future world rather than the present day.

All this began to change with the appearance in 1978 of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God (the trilogy is published by W.W. Norton at £18.99; paperback volumes £10.99 each). The 60-year-old Eisner was a veteran of the comics business, his cult newspaper strip The Spirit having run throughout the Forties. Inspired by the glossy, book-length collections he saw on an honorary visit to a French comic festival, Eisner sat down and produced what Gravett describes as ‘a quartet of sad, moving and disarmingly unglamorous’ vignettes of Jewish life in the Bronx of the Thirties.

To an industry whose mainstay was the exploits of glamorous superheroes - in other words, escapism - it was an untouchable curiosity. Eventually released by a small independent publisher, A Contract With God showed that comic book artists could tackle the same gritty subjects and thorny issues as novelists. ‘I can’t claim to have invented the wheel,’ Eisner later remarked, ‘but I felt I was in a position to change the direction of comics.’

Almost 30 years on, Eisner’s brave example has spawned countless graphic novels on every subject imaginable. Take Persepolis (Cape, £14.99), Marjane Satrapi’s wholly enthralling account of growing up in Iran after the 1979 revolution. While her drawings have the expressive power of woodcuts, their almost childlike simplicity allows her to deal with harrowing subjects (bombings, executions) in an accessible way. Persepolis is one of those books you wish would never end, its damning portrayal of dictatorships lingers long in the memory (luckily for Satrapi fans, her Embroideries and Chicken With Plums are equally good).

Domestic abuse and cancer are also subjects that one would never normally associate with comics, yet there are gripping graphic novels on precisely those themes. In Dragon Slippers (Harper Press, £9.99), Rosalind B. Penfold uses the sketchy style of the comic strip to relate the emotional trauma of life with a violent and manipulative man. It’s an odd-sounding approach that works superbly, the light tone balancing the weighty theme to ultimately liberating effect.

Similarly, Cancer Vixen by Marisa Axocella Marchetto (4th Estate, £9.99) and Mom’s Cancer (Abrams Image, £7.95) snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by means of a medium that can extract a redemptive lightness from the bleakest of situations. Even travel books can be done in comic-strip form, as Guy Delisle’s gently satirical Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea (Cape,£12.99) shows.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to think that the graphic novel has to tackle ‘serious’ subjects in order to be taken seriously. Cartoons and comic books traditionally deal with the bizarre, the childlike and the supernatural - everything, in fact, that novelists tend to disdain - and it’s in those strange realms that their greatest potential lies.

In fact, one of the genre’s true masterpieces is a 6,000-page multi-volume epic whose anti-hero is a misanthropic, shape-shifting aardvark. The brainchild of Canadian artist Dave Sim, Cerebus is comparable to the works of James Joyce in its formal experimentation and strange philosophic depth. Using word and image to extraordinary effect, it’s a creation that would have surpassed even Goethe’s wildest expectations.


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My Books

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

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

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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