Go Off With a Bang: A Beginners Guide to the Graphic Novel

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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.

GN1Fun 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.

 

 

GN2

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.

 

 

 

GN3Army 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.

 

 

GN4Unterzakhn 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.

Get your weekly wrap-up along with insight from our Editors

  • http://www.lawfl.net Geoffrey Mason

    Philly Wintle, you are quite a character! Your deft dismissal of graphic novels is delightful puff. Your looking-down-your-nose examinations of lesser art and culture is exactly what I hope to see for a Beginner's Guide.

    I applaud you in your elegant and successful five-paragraph gesture to make sure that we are made well aware that there is no reason to read any of these trifles that you describe, most assuredly with alacrity and authority – certainly there would be no reason to read past your first paragraphs – your initial wise words are all we need to roundly discard these non-artworks to the heap of times wasted.

    I would go so far as to describe this Beginner’s Guide as performance art. Bravo and well done.

    I have immediately signed up to be alerted by e-mail of each and every one of your new examples of performance art. I will savor every morsel.
    wasted.

  • –MC

    "Whilst"?

  • Philly

    Hey Geoffrey.

    I read and enjoy these texts, and any looking-down-my-nose is taking the piss, out of myself. There is no lesser culture and I don't think I'm an authority. When I mentioned that I haven't written a Graphic Novel, it was implying this. Just like my reviews are clearly a failed attempt to comment positively on a few texts I have enjoyed, this comment was clearly a failed attempt at humor. Damn it.

    Awesome that you have email notification of the stuff I write. I look forward to your continued positive feedback.

    P.s – You must be stoked that you are so brainy.

    • http://www.lawfl.net Geoffrey Mason

      Yes, I am stoked to see your future writings, and of course also because that I am so brainy. Perhaps over stoked even.

  • Philly

    'like'

  • Sarah

    This article is so insulting to the writers and illustrators that work diligently in this particular medium. I love the fact that graphic novels have the ability to immediately immerse a reader. So what if some people have shorter attention spans? It doesn't mean they are any less intelligent than people who enjoy reading Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

    Also, maybe do more research for a beginner's guide-type article on a topic you're not very immersed in. There are so many GN series that are fantastic and expansive, including Vertigo's 100 Bullets, Chew, and Y: The Last Man (can you tell I'm a Vertigo fan?).

    In summation: You're a pretentious douche who has no clue what he's talking about beyond the kiddie pool level of research that went into this article.

  • Philly

    Firstly – I'm a girl. Secondly – I thoroughly enjoy reading graphic novels. This is what this piece is about. Read it again without looking for something to criticise. Thirdly – pour yourself a drink and close your computer.

    • Paul

      Maybe write it again?

    • jerkwallace

      You don't come off as a fan. You come off as a snob who doesn't want to be caught actually enjoying a graphic novel, so you constantly talk down about the medium while pretending it's praise. Too bad you can't string together four sentences without a spelling error, you almost had me fooled that you were a writer.

  • McDunno

    The problem with trying to put a point across by using satire and sarcasm is that you have to actually be capable of writing satire and sarcasm.

  • http://bunnyvomit.com birdilicious

    Just because you don't understand a graphic novel doesn't make it less important. Maybe you should have done some research on the subject before dismissing the medium.

  • Erik F

    An interesting analysis of the role of visual art. Would you say that Michelangelo painted "big kid's picture books" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? And do you think that there is no talent or skill involved in being able to communicate a story in pictures?

    If graphic novels are, as you say, " great for readers who lack the attention span needed to ingest the building narrative tension of a novel," then why are they regularly being featured in respected (and exceedingly verbose) publications such as the New York Review of Books?

  • Stephen Welch

    You said "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"

    I have been reading comics for 40 years now. And I spent 8 years working in my LCS and have worked at my Comic Conventions. And would disagree with in the I would ay I have learned talking to follow comic readers that 98% of them are avid book readers. And most of the 98% work as lawyers. doctors, in a corporate postion, teachers(both high school and college) and others profession. And among those readers are people who love not just Science Fiction/fantasy but Mysteries, Romances, History, Political books and so much more. Yes I am sure there are poeple who reads comics but don't read novels but that doesn't mean they don't require the entention span to do so. It just may be that they just prefer comics/graphic novels over books. It is no different than some one who enjoys movies but doesn't read. It just may be a personal preference over the abilty to sit down and enjoy a book.

    Bottom line though there may be merits to what your saying I think you have generalized people who read graphic novels/comics.

  • http://ohyesverynice.com/ Ryan A-T

    I'm still not convinced that this isn't satire. It reads like an Onion article. I have a fair amount of experience with visiting schools and giving talks about comics to academics and the opening lines of this article are basically a list of all of the close-minded myths that I have to debunk. Over time it's become less of a task because your perspective has become more and more of an outdated cliche. Comics are not a genre, they're a medium, with their own subtleties, methods, rhythms, subtexts, etc. Your claims are akin to someone saying that movies are a lesser-medium. It's almost impressive to me that you're able to express such a lack of investigative thinking in such a hoity-toity fashion.

  • http://www.dylanmeconis.com/how-not-to-write-comics-criticism/ Dylan Meconis

    Hi Philly,

    I always appreciate seeing a discussion of comics that might appeal to readers who haven't explored the medium yet – thanks for writing on the subject, and for highlighting some truly great books. Thank you!

    That said, I think that your excellent intentions are being obscured a bit. You've employed some lines of thought that are unfortunately well-worn to those of us who work in comics or who follow the (meager) amounts of journalism on the medium.

    As a medium, comics get beat up on or dismissed rather regularly (every comics creator I know has a story about being openly insulted by a "fine artist", literary author, filmmaker, critic, or academic), and even a positive review can come off as an entirely back-handed compliment if you're on the receiving end.

    A few months ago I wrote an article in the hopes of helping critics and reviewers improve their writing on comics (and avoid provoking the ire of the comics community) by mapping out some of the most well-worn critical and journalistic sand traps.

    I don't know if it will be interesting to you, but it might be a friendly companion that next time you take up the subject. (Which I hope will be soon.)
    http://www.dylanmeconis.com/how-not-to-write-comi

    And, speaking as a female Dylan, I empathize with being mistaken for male in the comments section.

  • terry

    I just read this article a few times and I find it pretty insulting. maybe there's some sarcasm in there but since none of the posters here seem to see it, you just come off as arrogant and insulting.

    Why not just say, "I don't know shit about this medium or it's fans or creators so I'm just gonna blow smoke and list some books I had to read for a book club or college course"?

    I'm actually pretty surprised that you'd make an argument that is essentially more than 40 years old when characterizing what comics are and who reads them.

    Maybe you wrote this to impress some snarky people in your office. I don't know. I think you've just exposed that you don't know shit about comics.

  • Blue

    Listen, it's one thing to be a newcomer to graphic novels and be unfamiliar with the language of sequential image and text. It's another thing to be so utterly dismissive and contemptuous about what comics as a medium is capable of that even after reading four very well-done books, it's clear that you still don't understand the medium at all.
    Feel dumb reading Bechdal? It's because her story structures are cerebral and challenging. You can say the same thing about James Joyce or Francois Truffaut. Feel gross reading Tomine? It's because he does stories about realistically terrible people, a skill that's shared by many an artist or moviemaker. As a consumer of media, you need to understand how a skilled artist uses their medium in the best way they can, and acknowledge that that a novel, no matter how well crafted, will never make you feel the way a good graphic novel can, and vice versa.
    Once you realize this, you will not only act less douchey, but you will have a better time reading graphic novels. Good luck.

  • Darren Ashmore

    graphic novels? That alone gives me an inclining of how pretentious the author is. I am with Alan Moore when he said that those who call comics 'graphic novels' understand not one thing about this literary medium.

    If visual narrative is worthless, tell that to the artists who created Lascaux. Tell that to those who illuminated the Beowulf scrolls. tel that to those who carved Trajan's Column. And tell that to those who inked the Animal Scrolls.

    The author not only betrays their lack of knowledge here, but also their inherent prejudice. If that seems offensive, you may take this offends me – this is the sort of, offhanded dismissal which still sees comics as the 'funny papers' for kids. Just as with *any literature* there are trivial comics out there, but to paint all with the same critical brush – to dismiss an entire medium because some examples are poor – is the same as dismissing Lenonardo's Journals because of the Twilight Saga. It is like discarding Virginia Woolf as an author just because Michael Crichton wrote popualr (though enjoyable) pulp.

    Those comics which have weight and value will stand the test of time as examples of literature in their own right.

    Try the comics above, but also try Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Osamu Tezuka's My Friend Adolf, Alan Moore's Ballad of Halo Jones or Art Spiegelman's Maus.

    • Rebecca Connell

      I agree. And to have someone insult the medium and it’s readers, only to then go and “recommend” novels from their own collection… why would people read what you recommend after you called them a “twerp”?

  • http://twitter.com/growlybeast @growlybeast

    You are an idiot.

  • Rebecca Connell

    It seems that there is a massive lack of appreciation for graphic novels right here.
    The “graphic novel” medium is about not only about the story that’s there on the page but the relationship between author and artist.
    In comics like “From Hell”, written by Alan Moore, the artist Eddie Campbell did an incredible job, not only painting some horrific scenes, but interpreting Moore’s philosophical ideals in subtle but effective ways for the reader to see (while they could still visualise some of these ideals for themselves). Also, “From Hell”, or any other Alan Moore novel for that matter, is not a comic for those with small attention spans and it’s certainly no mere ‘movie version’ of a novel. It contains a ridiculous amount of detail not only in the written portions but the graphic portions as well. If anything it’s a complex piece of art. Don’t believe me? Then go and watch the film and tell me which one is less mature.
    Also have a look at Frank MIller’s “Dark Knight Returns”. People may scoff because it draws back to children’s comic book superheroes but in fact Millers novel, although short, was, and still is, a social satire of sorts. His observations of modern day society and our bleak outlook for the future made waves back when it was released. One could say that this comic was a huge statement. It was also the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy”, the first installment alone transforming the “Superhero Genre” into a darker, more mature brand of film.
    This is obviously this authors opinion of the medium and and for them to say that it’s premeditatively “quirky” or that reading comics makes people a “twerp” then it must be a reflection of how they see themselves as they read “big-kid picture books”.