Commentary: Graphic novels are all grown up

BY BRIAN DAU | MARCH 11, 2009 7:17 AM

Once upon a time, the adventures of caped crusaders and boy wonders were available solely at the local convenience store for around 25 cents. Today, the eternal struggle between heroes and villains in ridiculous outfits overflows into nearly every medium. With the theatrical release of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen — that crown jewel of the graphic novel ranked among Time magazine’s top 100 greatest English-language novels of all time — comic books and graphic novels alike have surged into the public eye.

So are graphic novels upstanding citizens of literature who make useful contributions to society, or are they subversive henchmen secretly POW’ing and WHAM’ing the impressionable minds of America’s youth with useless drivel and poor morals?

The question itself is problematic, as are most arguments over the legitimacy of the graphic-novel medium. Not all graphic novels involve costumed crime-fighters like the characters of Watchmen or other recognizable figures from comic books. In graphic novels such as Persepolis, about a girl growing up in Iran, or The Alcoholic, about a man’s struggle with addiction, characters are certainly not required to wear capes.

The idea also persists that graphic novelists, such as Moore and Gibbons, could never be counted among great literary figures of Twain’s or Steinbeck’s caliber. One commentator, Tony Long, discussing the 2006 National Book Award nomination of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese, in the “Young People’s Literature” category, declared: “It’s a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.”

And Long admitted he hadn’t even read the nominated work. Such an opinion is wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “literature” as “written works, esp. those whose value lies in beauty of language or in emotional effect.” The “beauty of language” part is subjective, but graphic novels surely can elicit emotional responses from readers. In fact, the addition of visuals to words adds another layer of resonance that should make for an even more powerful mental and emotional connection.

Terry Cain, the science fiction and graphic-novel buyer at Prairie Lights Books, believes there is a stigma surrounding illustrated novels that leads to an unfair attitude toward the medium. When Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets, about a child coming of age in a strict Christian family, came out in 2003, Cain displayed it in the New Paperback Fiction section despite some backlash from his managers. However, once the novel was among other literary works, it sold very well. Cain believes the people purchasing the novel weren’t “your average graphic-novel reader” and had simply never given the medium a chance. For them, it was a matter of context, and once Blankets was among easily defined literature it was accepted.

Suke Cody, who buys manga (Japanese graphic novels and comics) at Prairie Lights, sees the graphic-novel genre as its own distinctive form of art.

“[Graphic novels] don’t look like comic books. If you can appreciate art, there’s no reason you can’t appreciate a graphic novel,” she said.

Ultimately, the graphic novel should be treated just as any other novel. There are plenty of bad ones out there, but when they’re good, the stories they tell are just as compelling as those told by any great work of traditional literature. Art Spiegelman’s heartrending depiction of the Holocaust in Maus or Alan Moore’s horrifying portrayal of Jack the Ripper in From Hell bleed emotion from every page. Any refusal to believe in the graphic novel’s ability to engage readers in an intelligent way merely reflects a stubbornness to cling to old media at the expense of new communicative forms.

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