Saturday, October 13, 2012

Graphic Novels: The Literary Comic Book

When I suggest that graphic novels are capable of having as much literary merit as a MAN Booker Prize nominee, I sometimes meet with snorts of derision from not only English teachers but my fellow librarians too. Their ill-informed perspective is that a graphic novel is essentially a trussed up comic book; that is, superheroes in tights fighting moustache-twirling villains over 100+ pages.

This is true to an extent, of course. Trouble is, people seem to think that it's truer to a greater extent than it actually is. It doesn't help when some Waterstones seem to only stock superhero graphic novels (that was my experience when I lived in Leeds, anyway), and graphic novels are often tucked away in the teenage zone of the public library, a place most adults tend not to 'invade'


Photo Courtesy of Salem Public Library
Anyone who's read Watchmen will testify that superhero graphic novels can be literature. The weighty ethical and political issues dealt with in this chilling alternative reality, in which Nixon is still president in 1985 and a consequence of superhero-assisted victory in Vietnam is a countdown to nuclear Armageddon, make for a thought provoking, challenging and stimulating read. The layered complexities of the plot, not to mention the psycholgical profile of its characters, make it a far more accomplished story than most actual novels I've read.
Ditto Frank Miller's Batman books, a clear inspiration for the recent, superb Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman movies. I've made it clear to anyone who'll listen that my ultimate writer's dream is to be able to write a Batman graphic novel one day, but to do so would be a daunting task. Miller's stories capture the grim, postmodern ache of living in a world that seems ethically bankrupt as much as it may be financially. Isn't there a place for such stories on our bookshelves?

But there are reams of brilliant graphic novels out there in which there isn't a cape or 'BIFF' sign in sight. Anyone who thinks the comic book medium can't grapple with truly powerful and horrifying episodes from human history, such as the Holocaust, should really read Art Spieglman's Maus books, which deal with precisely that. Marjane Satrapi's bittersweet memoir of her life before, during and after Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 in Persepolis not only reads as a great history lesson, but it's a truly moving and involving rites of passage autobiographical tale in its own right.
Photo courtesy of Victor Martin

And if intellectual mysticism is your bag, check out the brilliant Neil Gaiman's Sandman books, in which the reader is invited on a dizzying, non-linear trip through space and time in the company of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and his family Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium and, grandest of all, Destiny, complete with a supporting cast that borrows deities from just about every culture in the world. Believe me, these books have as much philosophical, metaphysical and theological meat to get your teeth into as anything by Dostoyevsky.

Open your mind to graphic novels. You won't regret it.

An earlier version of this post appeared (quite some time ago) on Stray Blogs.


  1. I wonder if you can read a graphic novel on a Kindle? I'll have to investigate that. I confess I don't read them but I do enjoy novels that are illustrated. And they're not YA either, but adult-fiction. I'm thinking of Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (my favorite novel of all time) and more recently Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (which might be considered YA)...and not forgetting Alice in Wonderland. Sorry, I'm waffling, but you got me thinking.

  2. Good question. I've never looked in to it, but my understanding is that you can.

    Most of the very best graphic novels aren't YA. In fact, all of those I've referenced are aimed squarely at an adult audience. There's also a great graphic novel called 'Alice in Sunderland', which is a very different beast to the classic original :-)

  3. I've read three or four of the Sandman volumes. Besides developing an abiding fascination with Morpheus, I was also so impressed by how deep and thought-provoking Neil Gaiman's themes are.

    I get the impression that because the earlier comic-book reading public has grown up, comic books have also grown up into graphic novels, and have become (or at least are becoming) a sort of visual literature, which hold its own place among the various kinds of art.

  4. They are starting to get the respect they deserve, I think. But there's still a long way to go before we shake off the preconception that all graphic novels are superhero/Manga themed.

    I'd thoroughly recommend you keep going with the Sandman books. No law of diminishing returns as that particular series progresses, that's for sure.