Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Are Graphic Novels Literature?

Incisive, germane, and avant-garde, graphic novels have hit full stride in the last two decades and deserve recognition as a fecund and vibrant art form, an art form at least occasionally worthy of the appellation of literature. The best examples of the graphic novel genre possess the key hallmarks of great works of literature: original plot lines, potent conflict, rich characterization, refined detail, meaningful dialogue, and complex themes that tackle the sophisticated concerns and sensibilities of the postmodern zeitgeist.

Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, an anti-hero novel; Jeff Smith’s Bone, a LOTR-style saga; Frank Miller’s 300, a neo-conservative meditation on liberty; Bill Willingham’s Fables series, a creative re-imagining of class literary figures; and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books, insightful memoirs about daily life for progressives in a theocratic Iran, are five illustrations of graphic novels that merit the distinction of being classified as literature. Charged with nuance, irony, and ambiguity, these works convey deep and abiding truths about the human experience that can be as inspiring and cathartic as the classic short stories, novels, and plays of the canon. The combination of word and text in these selections enhance, magnify, and crystallize their insights in memorable configurations. Additionally, the subject matter and artistic style of the graphic novels range from the epic to the comedic to the tragic and everything in between, thus demonstrating the full impact and relevance of the genre for contemporary American culture.

Alan Moore’s The Watchmen features a classic comic approach to artwork, but its subject matter taps the postmodern vein and vibe with a terrifying focus and precision. Anyone familiar with the work will tell you that Moore’s characterization of Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan deals a well-aimed head shot, a death blow really, to the hero archetype. You come away from the novel and the film adaptation reeling against the magnitude of what you have just witnessed. Moore’s iconoclastic storytelling reaches its crescendo in this work, and its influence on the comic industry can still be felt to this day.

In contrast, the eponymous characters of Jeff Smith’s Bone saga are drawn in a delightfully iconic style and possess individual personalities that converge and diverge in a sprawling epic adventure story that features both high-minded humor about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, for example, and low-minded, crass bathroom humor. Smith’s magnum opus may come up short of Tolkien’s LOTR, but any story that features a few stooge-like villains obsessed with quiche is worth a read! And I have not even mentioned that this story also depicts the most Amazonian grandma in all of literature, an octogenarian warrior that is not to be trifled with.

The phenomenal success of the faithful movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 underscores the political climate in America following the attacks on the twin towers on 9-11. The Spartans’ valiant stand against the invading Persians at Thermopylae is recounted in vivid gory detail. Their heroic fight to the death for freedom appeals to the patriotic fervor of Americans willing to do whatever is necessary, risking even martyrdom, to sustain the freedoms that they enjoy. Miller’s graphic novel and its movie counterpart touched a sensitive nerve because of the environment in which it was written, the content of the storyline, and the brilliant artistry of the work.

Also focusing on the dramatic, Bill Willingham’s Fables series came out synchronously with the “Shrek” movies; however, where that series tickled the funny bone, Willingham’s narrative is much more dramatic in tone and subject matter. Willingham envisions an alternate fable universe that positions classic fable characters in radically different lights. Prince Charming is a foppish dandy who excels at womanizing but fails miserably at everything else. Snow White falls for the Big Bad Wolf (in a human form). Cinderella acts the part of a CIA-style agent. And all of the fables are embroiled in a climactic struggle to regain their homelands from the Emperor (Gepetto) whose forces expelled them from their beloved lands. This is heady stuff indeed, not for the faint-hearted!

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis memoirs are worth their weight in gold. Every American should read them to get a different perspective on Iran. Too often, Americans have xenophobic preconceived notions about Iranians, not to mention a whole host of other nations and peoples whose cultures and sensibilities are alien to our own. Reading Persepolis or watching the award-winning film based upon the series would be an eye opening and enlightening experience for most Americans. Imagine the shock that not every citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a fire-breathing theocrat! I highly recommend this graphic memoir, not because I agree with much, if any, of Satrapi’s political views, but because of the dialectic that encountering such a work engenders in a reader or audience with a previously myopic opinion on another part of the world.

While most graphic novels certainly do not merit the appellation of literature, neither do most standard novels. For every gem, there are literally thousands of bad eggs that stink to high heaven. Let me be clear. I am certainly not arguing that every comic or graphic novel deserves acclaim or an encomium. I am merely asserting that some are worthy of the distinction. I hope you will re-evaluate your own position on this emergent genre and keep an open mind. You might even consider checking out one of the titles that I have mentioned in this piece in order to come to a decision based upon an actual experience of the genre. You will thank me for it!

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