Saturday, April 10, 2010

On Graphic Novels

I have been immersing myself in the world of graphic novels over the last few weeks. The experience has been very rewarding as it has afforded me a delightful walk down memory lane. I loved reading comic books in junior high. In fact, the school bus dropped me off in a parking lot right near a comic book shop, so each day I would go in there and peruse the most recent selections until my mother got off work to pick me up. I found the gothic employees with their gloomy apparel, colorful tattoos, and strange piercings nearly as intriguing as the comics, but they always glowered at me since I rarely bought anything with my empty pockets.

Graphic novels are reminiscent of nineteenth-century serial novels; each month a new chapter appears, and a great story unfolds over the course of say a year or two. The key difference, obviously, is that these are complete illustrated novels rather than individual comic books. The major advantage of this approach is that at their best graphic novels wed wonderful storytelling with memorable visual artistry. Looking back on it now with the clarity of hindsight, comics were an excellent introduction to aesthetics as well as the basic rudiments of plot structure.

There is really no replacement or substitute for the effect of those glossy iridescent worlds on the adolescent mind. Where else can you see such a careful and meticulous attention to detail about the human form combined with a riveting story with real depth? Movies aspire to such heights, but they usually fail because of time constraints, misdirection, bad acting, or obsession with special effects at the expense of the narrative. The biggest disadvantage of graphic novels, and it is a big one, is that they do the imaginative work for you. There is little room left for an individual reader to picture something beyond what is before him or her.

The four graphic novels that I recently completed range widely in subject, style, and purpose. What they all have in common, however, is a shared interest in politics and the deeper themes of human existence. With Alan Moore’s poetic prose and splendid artwork, V for Vendetta is a triumph in its savage assault on fascism and authoritarian rule. The hero--I use the term loosely here given his immorality-- seeks to topple a corrupt regime that has perpetrated terrible atrocities against the people of England. While I found parts of the novel difficult to grasp, the general thrust is pretty apparent. The author advocates anarchy, a la Guy Fawkes, as a desperate measure for desperate times. There is an undercurrent of paranoia about the establishment that runs through this novel, but perhaps a little paranoia is a good thing from time to time, as governments can, and often do, exploit the people they pretend to serve.

Frank Miller appears to sit on the opposite side of the political fence as Moore. After enjoying tremendous success as a graphic novel, his 300 was adapted into a cinematic tour de force that visualized the power and artistry of his novel beautifully. Audiences rallied behind his celebration and defense of Western civilization in his epic telling of the Battle of Thermopylae. Here was an author audacious enough to buck the progressive revisions of our cultural patrimony. Miller refused to swallow the liberal kool-aid of collective self-loathing and came out in favor of those staunch Spartans who shed their blood for liberty and freedom beyond their city’s gates. Miller’s neoconservative views figuratively and literally bleed into his story.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2 were made into an Academy-Award winning animated film. Satrapi has given the world a vivid memoir of her childhood and early adult life in Iran and Europe. Her graphic novel provides a rare look into the recent history of Iran from the point of view of an ambivalent narrator who has come to grips with her nation’s history. She conveys her sense of attachment and alienation with her native land, as well as her enchantment and disillusion with Western decadence. Hers is fundamentally a story about self-education in the face of religious and cultural oppression of all stripes.

John Zmirak’s The Grand Inquisitor displays the poetic gifts of its writer who opted to pen his work in blank verse. With the help of Carla Miller’s illustrations, the duo succeeded in creating a vivid post-Vatican II spiritual meditation on Dostoyevsky’s memorable episode from The Brothers Karamazov. This graphic novel really stirred me to consider the negative implications of modernity’s influence on the Church rather than the Church’s influence on modernity. Who would have thought the graphic novel a medium capable of such a compelling and penetrating insight about the Church today?

I have been somewhat surprised by the maturity of these graphic novels, but not too much. Something inside of me must have recognized the worth of these stories even as a young teenager. Comics are often ignored and cast aside as an insignificant genre lacking sufficient merit to warrant a closer look. I defy such a narrow-minded understanding of graphic novels!


  1. "Fable" is probably the best on-going graphic novel series right now. I really recommend it.

  2. Is there one in particular that you would recommend with which to get my feet wet?

  3. "Fables" Sorry! "1001 nights of snowfall" is their stand-alone novel. Otherwise, the fourth book, "March of the Wooden Soliders" is when it really gets good. But it's very much a story that builds. It's all about all the "Fairy tales" of every age trying to survive in our world. In fact, their spin off, "Jack of Fables" might appeal to you more, since it's much more "English Teachery" It's about these librarians trying to bowdlerize fables, it's really cool stuff.

  4. It looks like I'm in luck. My local library has almost the complete set of the graphic novels, so I'll read the first few books next weekend. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

  5. Awesome! That really is the best way to approach the series. Hope you like it!

  6. You should check out Zmirak's The Grand Inquisitor. It's worth a read. Thanks for the input as always!

    Oh, by the way, I got out my yearbook the other day, so it's nice to put the face with the name. I definitely recall you many times in Richardson's office and wine and cheese socials.

  7. Great article, you really pinned down the fact that graphic novels are a form of art and not just for kids, but I was wondering if you know of any Catholic graphic novels? If currently making a web comic on Our Lady of Fatima and would really like some feedback.