The World of Graphic Novels
by Eric Lorberer
For those who still think of comic books as being dog-eared denizens of drugstores and newsstands, there's a world of graphic novels beyond the wire rack. The latest milestone in the effort to get this point across is Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels (Phaidon Press, $59.95); with illustrations on every one of its pages, the book is a lavish production you'll be proud to put on your coffee table. But it's also a conversational and accessible tour through the murky, cultish, and sometimes complicated history of this marginalized art form, and therein lies its strength. Passing on the tired debate about whether comics are "Art," Sabin looks at the growth of the medium and finds that comics—from Mad magazine to Japanese manga—show development, innovation, and a profound engagement with the culture that habitually ignores them.
It is in fact Sabin's appreciation of context that makes this book so winning. Understanding both the climate of reception (questions of audience, political and economic factors, race and gender issues, etc.) and that of production (aesthetic palates, changes in technology, marketing strategies), Sabin shows the form being molded by subtle or not-so-subtle pressures from both sides. After an excellent first chapter detailing the pre-and early history of comics, he then follows different strands down the timeline of history, a thematic approach that only loosely attempts an overall narrative for the industry's development. The book's middle chapters focus on the various kinds of content (humor, action, etc.) associated with the medium, and Sabin leaves these discussions open at crucial junctures, allowing him to pick up their threads in later chapters—and thus demonstrate how contexts of time and culture interact with and affect the content. Ultimately, it is the artists' growing desire for political and self- expression that comes to the fore as the industry becomes less (or at least differently) formulaic and more friendly to the creative impulses that seed these mass-produced texts.
For all the information packed in his prose, Sabin writes clearly and engagingly about this vast subject. The one aspect he rarely mentions is that of artistic technique, yet with so many different styles represented, one can simply keep an eye on the illustrations to see how motifs and structures repeat or get reinvented, how different approaches to line and text result in different effects. An excellent bibliography refers the reader to a panoply of books about comic art, ranging from critical exegeses by semiotic or Marxist theorists to works more concerned with the nitty-gritty by comic artists themselves. In a genre that is too often associated with its weaker products, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels is a smart history of "the ten per cent of comics that make things interesting."
Much of that ten per cent is put out by the publisher NBM, whose "Comics Lit" imprint offers graphic novels of varying approach but consistent quality. The phrase might lead one to think these will be illustrated classics, along the lines of Moby Dick summed up in ahandful of four-color pages. Not so. Most of the works are original fictions, often by writers from Europe where, as Sabin points out, Hergé's Tintin comics blazed a trail for comics to be seen "as suitable for anyone between seven and seventy." And those that are closer to the classics spirit, such as Peter Kuper's adaptations of short stories by Kafka or Rick Geary's ongoing Treasury of Victorian Murder, are still worlds apart from the reductive approach of classics for kids. These books open out; they invite the reader to question the narration rather than be lulled by it; most importantly, they bring to the originating text a graphic approach that utterly complements it. Kuper's Give It Up! (NBM, $14.95), for example, brings his nightmarish woodcut style to Kafka's inimitable fables, creating tone poems of black humor the master would be proud of. Geary's Jack the Ripper (NBM, $14.95) is equally well executed, a dizzying array of detailed line drawings which tells the Ripper tale from the point of view of "an unknown British gentleman who lived in London during 1888-1889 and closely followed the increasingly savage killings." Based on actual journals, this personal, layman's perspective provides the perfect counterpoint to Geary's meticulously researched renderings. It should at least be briefly noted that both Kuper and Geary push the envelope of the very language of comics in their highly distancing lack of dialogue balloons.
Another variation of the classics illustrated genre is Martin Rowson's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (The Overlook Press, $26.95). Rowson's artwork is a dead-on imitation of eighteenth-century British satirical cartoonists (whose "skill for exaggeration and ironic juxtaposition of words and pictures set an aesthetic template that has endured to this day," Sabin rightly notes). But again, this is no easy version of the real thing; slashing and burning his way through Sterne's proto-postmodern text, Rowson peppers his Tristram Shandy with self-reflexive scenes of himself doing research on the "graphic thesis" we're reading. This leads the author/artist to match wits with "a merry troupe of leaping French deconstructionists," crash headlong into an Oliver Stone film version of the book, and so on. The spirit of Sterne's book animates this graphic novel so well that it should be a hit with English majors, but it's hard to imagine what anyone else would make of it.
Rowson's book is about as far away from comics as the graphic novel can get; more familiar territory can be found in Kingdom Come (DC, $14.95), a thought provoking morality play from the home of Superman, Batman, and other iconic heroes. This is what Sabin calls a "revisionist superhero story," a genre which takes a darker look at these costumed adventurers. DC arguably catapulted comics into the consciousness of adults with two such revisionist graphic novels released in 1986: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which imagined a Blade Runner-ish future for the hero, portraying him as nearly psychotic by enhancing the obsessive, violent, and judgemental aspects of the character; and Watchmen, an intricately structured 400 page tale in which the heroes are as phony, conniving, egotistical—as complex—as the rest of us, and which definitively proved that "graphic novel" could be more than a marketing euphemism. Kingdom Come follows in this vein; when the paragons of humanity abdicate their social responsibility to do good they leave chaos in their wake, and end up nearly causing armageddon by fighting each other instead of the bad guys. It's not nearly as successful as its esteemed forebears—some elements of the revisionist approach seem to be wearing thin—but to anyone reared on the exploits of the "Justice League of America" it's still a new and sophisticated chapter in the reworking of a mythology. And while the auteur approach in comics is more prevalent in independent works it's evident even here; Kingdom Come is beautifully hand-painted rather than produced by the assembly line.
If books such as those mentioned above show how comics can explore the bombastic realm of mythos, Dan Clowes' Ghost World (Fantagraphics, $19.95) makes clear that the form has the potential to turn inward as well. Ghost World is a quiet tour de force; Clowes brings a haunted lyricism to the story of two teenage girls and their tortured search for self-definition. In any form it would be astonishing how well Clowes has captured the psyche of the iconoclastic Enid and her best friend Becky; in the graphic novel it's especially impressive that their pathos shines through the panels. And the ghost world is our world, of course, the one where we don't fit in; where other people become either our amusement or our pain; where our loved ones fill their heads with television transmissions instead of feelings. The television, in fact, is a major character in Ghost World, constantly on and saying nothing, and the entire story is cast in its eerie, monotonous blue light. Clowes' stark examination of personal angst and deftness with narrative bring to mind Bergman's Persona (check out that cover). Writing about Clowes' previous work—the more surreal but far less tender graphic novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and the angry/ironic vignettes that appear in his regular comic Eightball—Sabin points out that unlike most comic artists, Clowes "was prepared to explore more abstract territory."
If you want to know more about individual artists' explorations, look no further than Dangerous Drawings (Juno Books, 24.95), an anthology of interviews that includes a wide range of "comix and graphix artists." While about half of those represented are other young turks who, like Clowes, are busy making the world of graphic novels a better place, it's good to hear from a few artists who remember when the "alternative" was "underground," and it's also good to hear from some young "fine" artists who have been powerfully influenced by comics. The book leads off with a lengthy conversation with Art Spiegelman, whose influence on comic art is so enormous that he's mentioned frequently throughout Sabin's book (only R. Crumb is mentioned more); his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus gave the graphic novel its greatest taste of respectability, and his controversial covers for the New Yorker, discussed at length in this interview, showed the power of the art-punk aesthetic that unifies these otherwise very different artists. Editor Andrea Juno consistently asks the right questions; the book also includes lots of photographs and reproductions to offer visual aids to the discussion.
"In the end, if the official arbiters of taste will not acknowledge comics' cultural value, then at least this means that the form remains a 'free medium'—and there are not many of those left," writes Sabin. Yetlet's hope that his book and the other works mentioned here—along with the dozens of incredible comic artists not mentioned in this particular survey—get a little more recognition. Theirs is a literature whose power and potential are just now beginning to be explored. It would be a shame if no one were watching, because the world of graphic novels is far from a ghost world where only the old forms drone on.
Click here to purchase The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlman at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997