Go Off With a Bang: A Beginners Guide to the Graphic Novel
Whilst Graphic Novels can explore profound places and complex characters, they are admittedly written ‘movie-versions’ of modern literature. They are big-kids picture books, and anyone who says otherwise is being precious.
You can certainly academicise the genre, postulate the graphic novel as the emerging interface between visual and written mediums, and trick yourself in to thinking that reading graphic novels is quirky and highbrow. In doing this however you would have to live with yourself being a twerp.
Graphic novels are great for readers who lack the attention span needed to ingest the building narrative tension of a novel and they serve as a text that can punctuate the droughts we have between lengthy texts. They are a straightforward and amusing way to enjoy ideas that would otherwise be communicated with the science of big words.
Because graphic novels take a considerably shorter time to read, and due to the accompanying visuals, you instantly engage in your story the second you open the page. There is no need to flick through the previous pages to understand why so-in-so said this or that, or who the shit that new character is. The pictures are there for you, the sentences are generally short and to the point and because of this, you can read them 15 minutes at time – an added convenience for public transport commuters.
Below are a few in my collection, and a good as a starting point for anyone curious to pick up a graphic novel, but hesitant because they don’t wear thick-rimmed glasses and their nana’s ironically fashionable knit.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Essentially this text explores the complex relationship between a closet gay father and his gay daughter. As a reader you become involved with the strain and lack of transparency in their relationship, and are pulled through the narrative, due to the unusualness of the situation, curious to find out what the next peculiar event will reveal. Her follow up graphic novel Are You My Mother is slightly harder to swallow. In Are You My Mother Bechdel explores her relationship with her mother, using Virginia Woolfe and the psychoanalysis of Donald Winnicott as a backboard. Personally I struggled with this text, and might be because I was a bit dumb for it. I felt that academic speak and playful images contradicted each other slightly and because of this the general tone of the text was confused for me. I’ve never written and illustrated a novel, but when I do write one, I’ll ensure consistency and sell my book to an appropriate philistine audience.
The illustrations in Fun Home, also by Bechdel are brilliant in their simplicity and whilst every image is detailed, the line is thin and loose, complementing the playful however considered tone of the text.
Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Shortcomings is about a lousy boyfriend and girlfriend. It concerns a staled romantic relationship and a couple who have fatally discouraged what their partner finds rewarding and exciting. It’s an extremely easy read and ends unemphatically. The narrative is simplistic and realistic and because of this you feel a bit gross reading it, needing to remind yourself that monogamous doom is not inevitable and your bad habits will be just as endearing to your boyfriend in years to come as they are now.
Tomine’s accompanying images are what drew me to this text. Clean lines and characters depicted in motion gives the text momentum. The text is all in capitals and the pages structured and architectural. Visually, this is one of the finest graphic texts I have read. If this text were a room, it would be a kitchen with dish drawers.
Army of God by David Axe and Tim Hamilton
This is an excellent read for those of us who are openly ignorant about the conflict in Central Africa and distinctly unsure about Invisible Children after the public masturbating incident. Before reading this I had only recently learned of Joseph Kony’s army violently molesting civilian security. In this text I learned about the history of the Congo, the Lord’s Resistance Army and the United States’ intervention in the region over two presidents. At times this text can read like an advertisement for America, but I’m increasing beginning to feel as though some American documentarians genuinely believe that America is the only country capable and willing and responsible enough to intervene in conflict that exists outside of America. Despite this, it’s worth reading to become informed.
Hamilton’s illustrations are appropriately crude, borrowing line from traditional African woodcuts and reflecting the viciousness in the content. The images at times downplay the grim and devastating truth to Joseph Kony’s rampage.
Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
In Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century live Estha and Fanya. The story is seen through the eyes of these sisters, as they grow and experience the life of New York during a vast immigrant expansion. The story is raw and provocative and largely set in a whorehouse, which is awesome. All the stereotypes you’d ever want are in there: the boisterous Madam, disgraced mother and the sleek and unapologetic courtesan.
It’s an eye opening account of a life hard to visualize and Corman’s illustrations work in the viewer being able to grasp this exciting and desperate time. The line in this novel is deliberate and the illustrations act as snapshots, documenting narrative and action with a bold poise.
The small downside to reading these novels is that you sometimes don’t experience the same feeling of triumph as you can reading an extended text. Despite this whimper, it’s a terrific way to become informed and to engage in stories, places and people outside of our lives, watching literature as you would a crafted piece of cinema. That graphic novels are becoming mainstream, giving artists with a love of stories and illustration a medium to exercise their creative talents is exciting. Give it a few years and they might just start popping up in dusty and charming second had bookstores, hopefully, because it’s a bloody expensive hobby.