Confessions of a Former Snob, or, How I Stopped Fighting Graphic Novels and Learned to Love Them
By Sasha Nyary, Dean’s Editorial Fellow
I had a Twitter exchange recently about whether Harold and the
Purple Crayon is a graphic novel. Well, no. There’s a perfectly
good term for Harold: It’s a picture book. A brilliant and
extraordinary picture book. “What about Mo Willems?” my
fellow tweeter posited next. Willems, who also writes wonderful
books, sometimes has text in bubbles, and uses the pages as the
panel borders. But still, they aren’t true graphic novels.
So what’s a graphic novel? A book-length comic book, said Robin Brenner, author of Understanding Manga and Anime, on No Flying, No Tights, her website for all things graphic novel and manga (http:// noflyingnotights.com). Graphic novels have pictures and text bubbles, and they are sequential; they tell a story through multiple panels. It’s the story-telling that makes them more than just collections of comic strips. (By the way, “manga” is the term for Japanese comics, but manga is not just another graphic novel; it’s a distinct artistic format. We’ll talk about manga another time.)
Besides, Brenner said, “If you're going to like graphic novels and comics, and champion them, then highlight the actual graphic novels out there, not the titles that kinda-sorta fit.” Champion book-length comic books? My inner snob cringed when I got to library school in 2010 and started hearing about graphic novels. I realized I couldn’t continue to ignore them. I learned to read largely because I wanted to be able to read the Sunday comics, but I never transitioned to comic books, and I was disdainful of anyone who had. As an adult, when I saw my friends reading them, I was dismissive. Then I read Maus.
For me, Art Spiegelman’s story of his father’s experiences during the second World War was the beginning of my enlightenment. I read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale with my book group and I came away with an utterly new sense of the Holocaust and life inside concentration camps that I knew I could never have gotten from a book or movie. The book received a Pulitzer Prize in 1992; the committee didn’t know how to categorize it so they simply gave it a special award. Although many were appalled at the idea of honoring a comic book this way, a significant high-brow, low-brow cultural barrier had been broken. We also read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood, and again my world was rocked, this time about Iran, Islam, theocracies — even teenagers. The experience was visceral; I felt what she was relating, rather than understood it. I was there with Satrapi in a way that even the animated version couldn’t give me.
I posed the question about graphic-novel snobbery to Brenner, who was quick to explain it: “Everybody thinks of the graphic novel as a genre,” she said, “and it’s just not. It’s a format. In America, of course, comics were originally dominated by superheroes. But there were huge numbers of genres that were going on and we just decided to forget about them. Romance comics were big. Archie is still one of the biggest comics in the world. Everyone has seen or read Archie at some point.”
Brenner, whose day job is the teen librarian for the Brookline (Mass.) Public Library, teaches GSLIS continuing education classes about graphic novels and manga, and the students often express their dislike of the format. “Maybe they’ve tried to read something that’s considered a classic, like Watchmen,” she said. “But that’s not a book you should give someone unless they like that type of story. It’s a fairly grim, complicated, dense book. I would not give it to someone who likes cozy mysteries.” Much of what Brenner does when she introduces graphic novel newbies to the format is simple readers’ advisory. “There’s nothing that says you have to become a giant fan,” she says, “but if you want to read one and find out why it’s interesting, you need to find one you’re going to like.”
So what was my problem? I asked. I’d tried reading the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 graphic novels, something I was interested in, but couldn’t get into them. “Some of that will come with practice of reading graphic novels,” Brenner said. “And part of the issue that is always true with comics is the visual shifts with artists. Some of them will be good at leading you through the page, especially when it’s based on some other media. There’s always the question of, do they look like what I want them to look like?”
I was mostly okay with how Buffy looked, I said, but she kept changing from volume to volume, and I couldn’t always figure out which one she was. “One of the things that comics fans get into is that artists change every six months or so,” Brenner said. “You have to get used to the fact that the characters are going to look different. Artists get hired for a particular stint, so they get eight issues or six issues, say.” It’s the nature of the mostly freelance industry, she says, but often the artists don’t want to stay on one project, either. They want to build up a portfolio or try a different style of comic.
At the same time, artists get known for particular styles. “The major artists are distinct, so as soon as you open a book, you say, oh, this is a Jim Lee comic,” Brenner said. Inevitably, not every graphic novel reader cares for every artist, even some of the best in the business. “Frank Quitely is incredibly well known,” Brenner said. “He has a particular talent for laying out comics in a particular way. They’re beautiful. His layouts are famous. I admire his talent for layout, but personally I hate the way he draws characters. But if the comic is well written, I’m going to keep reading it. Just because the art changed isn’t going to put me off. It’s just a personal preference.”
I came to appreciate graphic novels as a format when I took Young Adult Literature (LIS 483) with GSLIS professor of practice Linda W. Braun, so I continued the discussion with her. “I define a graphic novel as a novel that is in mostly visual form,” Braun said. “Maus has some text to help sell the story, but actually the story is told primarily told through the visuals. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and we read it as we would read text. Except we read the pictures.”
That’s the challenge of graphic novels, I have found. I forget to read the pictures. What’s with that? Turns out reading visuals is a learned skill, just like learning to read. “Just because something has a picture, because something is visual, doesn’t mean it’s easy to read,” Braun said. “It’s the same with text. Just because it uses words and we learn to read in first grade doesn’t mean it’s easy. You need visual literacy just as you need textual literacy.”
And not just visual and textual literacies, Braun said. “Have you heard the terms ‘transliteracy’ and ‘transmedia’? The idea is that there are all these literacies you need to be able to transcend, translate, transform. Trans- all of them. You need to be able to read pictures, and images, and movies, and TV. You need to be able to read text. You need to be able to understand what it all means, comprehend it. And be confident in it.”
Who reads graphic novels, then? “Anyone who likes visuals,” Braun said. “But I think it’s a lot of people who aren’t confident or comfortable with text, and want story, and this is how they get it.” Brenner agreed that graphic novels can be appealing to reluctant readers, but she doesn’t see that population as the primary readers. “Many readers are adding graphic novels to the mix of what they read,” she said. “And my best graphic novel readers are my best readers period. They read anything and everything.” Graphic novels are just a delivery method, just one more way to get a great story.
They are certainly becoming mainstream, Braun said, and what is key is letting people know they exist and that it’s okay to read them. She suggested that librarians promote graphic novels by including them on every resource list — Maus should certainly be on a list of World War II materials, for instance. “Including them shows that these are valid reading materials,” she said, “that they are a part of the whole collection. We need to make them available, not just for pleasure, but also for information.”
Braun also advocates that librarians educate themselves, talk the graphic novels up, and show teachers what is available and why it might be useful. “Many librarians have the materials but they don’t understand why they have them,” she said. “They just know that they’re popular. But why are they popular, and why does it make a difference? What’s the benefit for young people? Or old people? We should say to teachers, ‘I put the graphic version of Beowulf on this list of classics, and here’s why.’ ”
Now, wait just a second. Doesn’t an AP high school English class have to read the real thing?
“What makes it the real thing?” Braun says. “The original format? Isn’t it the story? The words are important, but they also are what turns everybody off. So why not be able to get that story, and talk about that story without being challenged? They’re not going to learn anything if they just don’t get it.”
Okay, I’m sold. Time to work on my visual literacy. Buffy, here I come.