An Introduction to Graphic Novels – (For Adults)

Over the years, I have found myself peering inquisitively through the glass doors of Bazbo Comics, Truro. Beyond those doors glittered a technicolour comic rainbow, infused with an abundance of Marvellous latex-adorned superheroes, spattered amongst which lay a host of undefinable nerdy trinkets. Although I was apprehensive to indulge my curiosity, I entered this psychedelic realm on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. I expected naively to be dodging DC-devouring children or nostalgia-craving adults, but instead sat amongst the graphic novels I realised that this medium wasn’t child’s play or saturated with spandex superheroes, it was an intelligent, thought-provoking and visually stunning artistic platform, brimming with realism and acute discussions on a vast number of stimulating topics, from climate change and social media fame to sexuality, the Holocaust and Victorian England. Yet – for many these enthralling and acclaimed works remain shrouded in mystery and myth. Many adults abide by the assumption that pictures aren’t quite grown up. Yet as Philip Pullman cleverly writes in his Guardian review of Maus (by Art Spiegelman), some of the ‘greatest novels were conceived from the beginning as being accompanied by pictures’. Drawings by Sidney Paget help to bring the world of Sherlock Holmes to life as much as the wondrous words of Conan Doyle, John Tenniel’s magnificent illustrations for Alice and Wonderland, are the perfect accompaniment to Carrols imaginative narrative, and Dickens career as a novelist commenced when he was commissioned to write a text to accompany a series of engravings of Cockney sporting life by the artist Robert Seymour, which eventually grew into The Pickwick Papers. Thus, it becomes quickly clear that pictures aren’t for those who cannot read properly. In fact, reading graphic novels is both intellectually stimulating and creative – the artistic capacity of the medium is undeniable and a lot like when examining art in a gallery, graphic novels ask you to look beyond the obvious, to use your intuition and imagination to glean what a frame is telling you about a story. All in all, despite my initial apprehension, it became apparent very quickly that graphic novels are both serious and intellectual, but most importantly that they are for adults too.

Maus by Art Spiegelman

It is not uncommon to believe that graphic novels aren’t for an adult audience, the history of the medium is littered with remnants of the long and arduous fight to transform and promote the comic medium into something adults could both appreciate and enjoy. Even more so than now, the early comic books with their ‘cartoony’ strips, plastered with technicolour superhero’s and sci-fi novelties were regarded as a genre for children. However, over the years a host of electrifying reads were produced, whose authenticity and realism no child could respectfully appreciate. This new breed of intelligent and symbolic comic books were branded by some as ‘Illustories’ and others as ‘picto-fiction’, but it was Richard Kyle, in his 1964 column, ‘The Future of ‘Comics’, who presented the ‘artistically serious comic book strip’ with a respectful name that has stuck with us today – graphic novel.

After Kyle had coined the term graphic novel, the 1970s saw a host of graphic novel champions striving to place the genre in the hands of the adult population. Amongst them was Byron Preiss, who wrote in the introduction to the first issue of Fiction Illustrated: “Fiction Illustrated aspires to be adult in its audience and approach, to be a place where new concepts and characters can be presented without concession to the needs of a children’s market or a particular genre.” Similarly, the legendary American cartoonist and writer – Will Eisner wrote: “Certainly, there was more for the cartoonist… to deal with than super heroes who were preventing destruction of the earth by super villains.” In 1978, Eisner did in fact demonstrate the astounding potential of the medium when he released: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, the works that is often ascribed to have placed graphic novels firmly on the literary map. As such, Eisner played a goliath role in promoting new ways to think and talk about graphic novels. All in all, in the words of Richard Kyle, each of these iconic figures spent their lives proving that graphic novels are: ‘neither comic, nor cartoony, nor poorly written, nor for children’.

However, despite their creativity and determination, there are still many adults today who have never picked up a graphic novel. According to the Guardians article – ‘Why read graphic novels?’ – which is ironically posted under Children’s Books – a tremendous number of people ‘not only haven’t read a graphic novel but also profess to not know how to’. Further, in the eyes of some, graphic novels still aren’t seen as an ‘acceptable’ form of reading. Having once myself been naïve to the splendors of this medium, I can understand why some are apprehensive or why many of us have not been enlightened in regards to the intellectual and creative scope of the medium. Yet, these prejudices need addressing. In honour of the graphic grafters like Kyle, Preiss and Einser, among many others, I have chosen a handful of wonderful graphic novels to review over the coming months, which I briefly describe below for those who need instantaneous inspiration.

Reading Building Stories
Building Stories by Chris Ware

To go back to the dawn of the graphic novel, pick up a copy of Einser’s groundbreaking creation, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), which is a beautifully woven tale that picture-perfectly captures the souls of the troubled inhabitants of the mythical Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. This is the seminal work that forever transformed the comic medium.

Instead of starting with Einser’s pioneering book, I began with Art Spiegelman’s, Maus (1987), which as the first graphic novel to win the prestigious Putlizer Prize, also made a generous contribution to paving the way for the recognition of the comic medium in the literary world. In this acclaimed novel, Spiegelman blends biography, autobiography and historical memoir to create a stunning black-and-white illustrated Holocaust history – which presents the story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe.

Maus, with its empathy-invoking and powerful imagery, demonstrates with flair the capacity of the comic medium to recreate a tragic time in our history. Another stunning novel that captures a historical moment, with originality and a subtle dose of wit, is Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. This book is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution which uniquely blends autobiography, politics and history to weave a wise, heart-rendering and original tale.

Both Maus and Persepolis shine a light on important historical times and create a space for us to think about cultural differences. For another novel that examines a different culture, look no further than Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle. Delisle, presents us with a glimpse into the world’s most mysterious nation, North Korea. In 2001, armed with a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Delisle became one of the few Westerners to be allowed access to North Korea. This graphic novel surmises his observations and encounters with the culture and lives of the few North Koreans he met.IMG_1615

Maus, Persepolis and Pyongyang all capture a moment in history, but there are also many graphic novels that directly reflect upon the issues we face today, this includes, Here, by Richard McGuire which is the groundbreaking comic strip that stylishly explores climate change, and Snot Girl by Bryan Lee O’Malley which is a unique read that takes a hard look at social media fame.

Next, I have selected a troupe of exciting graphic novels that explore sexuality and teenage angst. First up, is Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. Clowes presents an aesthetically gorgeous depiction of teenage angst and disaffected youth which has often been compared to Catcher in the Rye. It was also made into a pretty film starring Scarlet Johansson and Thora Birch. Alike Ghost World, both The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Blue is the Warmest Colour have been adapted into beautiful films. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is Phoebe Gloeckner’s stunning account of 15-year-old Minnie Goetze’s struggle with sexuality and Blue is the Warmest Colour, is the lesbian love story by Julie Maroh. The last three novels primarily explore adolescent sexuality, however, Fun Home the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel weaves a sad and surprisingly witty tale that explores growing up with her closeted funeral director father. With her shrewd exploration and charming gothic prints it’s no wonder Fun Home spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

In stark comparison to the novels presented so far is the dark and compelling book, From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. This is an impressive works which presents a chilling and ingenious take on Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders of 1888. It is a staggering 576 pages which promises, a gripping plotline, gritty murder scenes, meticulous research and an ambitious commentary on Victorian England. Also by Moore, is the thrilling dystopian novel, V for Vendetta, another worthy read. There are many other chilling graphic novels to devour, Black Hole by Charles Burn is one such novel. It is based in mid-1970’s suburban Seattle, where a terrifying plague transmitted by sexual contact has befallen the teenage population. Burn’s with his powerful, gorgeous and confidently cool black-and-white graphics takes us on a thrilling journey as the plague churns out teenage mutants.Paper Girls by Brian K. VaughanFinally, I want to finish with two of Chris Ware’s marvelous novels, Building Stories and Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth which both demonstrate perfectly just how creative the medium can be. Building Stories is a unique novel that follows the inhabitants of a three-flat Chicago apartment house, it stands out as its presented in a board game sized box, in 14 separate artistic segments, each of which take on a novel form – flip-book, comic and newspaper, among many more – and which can be read in any order to uncover the tale! Completely different is Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth – the winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2001 – this is a moving autobiography – presented in simple and striking drawings – of an ‘office dogsbody in Chicago’ who one day encounters the father who abandoned him as a child.

To get email alerts for the full reviews of these exciting graphic novels and other upcoming book reviews subscribe to the Snooks Books mailing list on the right-hand side of the page.

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