Lure of the visual, appeal of the verbal— the strange world of graphic novels. Or are they comics… colourful, tangible, torn-pages-worn-at-the-edges? Standing at the juncture of the iconic and the verbal, what do you call when you call out loud? Politics of denomination…
An ardent reader of the genre, Sucheto Nath goes back to his stack and tries to unpack the age-old debate, steering through personal memories.
I have heard Neil Gaiman doesn’t like the words graphic novel. Someone once called him a graphic novelist, and he later said it made him feel like being called ‘a lady of the evening’. So I was wondering if I should go with comic book instead, but then I thought of the double-page art in Frank Miller’s 300, and I can’t help thinking that the graphic novel genre must be real. Graphic novels are real, and they must be so called because they’re going to places that comic books didn’t use to, and maybe still don’t.
When I think of reading graphic novels, one of the first things that I remember is how Art Spiegelman’s Maus suddenly became a must-read for my friends in college. But then that’s definitely not where a more careful study of graphic novels would start. If I had to talk about graphic novels, I would go back to two books by Rasputin-lookalike Alan Moore: Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Despite being alternate histories, for me, they’re both historical artefacts. What’s true for science fiction movie remakes is true for these because the social anxieties that created them in the first place are usually long gone by the time their films were made. What’s striking about both of these books is that reading them takes us back to a period in history that some of us don’t know existed. It’s really one thing to talk about the ‘Cold War’ and quite another to read page after page of adult characters going about their lives, costumed or not, thinking that they might die in a nuclear war. That is why the villain in Watchmen is so often said to be no villain at all, because what he did would be something like the miracle that so many millions of people seem to have been praying for at the time. They would give anything to avoid being wiped out in a mushroom cloud. And, of course, in V for Vendetta, that eventuality has already come to pass, and while the problems of Margaret Thatcher’s period in office are certainly a big part of the story, there’s also that anticipated emotional trauma of a nuclear holocaust.
Speaking of two of the most important graphic novels ever written, there’s a typical style that one might attribute to Alan Moore, or the illustrators and producers. What the author does, involves putting a seemingly innocuous line of dialogue, maybe coming from a TV or from the radio, alongside serious action – so a line of fictional music might underscore an assassination. In addition, such small scenes help to flesh out the world that the author is creating, like when there’s some comedy about a couple hiding rations in V for Vendetta, meant to tell us just how normalized the fascist outlook had been made by the media in that world. Watchmen has whole fictional comic books and testimonies inside it, such as the fictional Tales of the Black Freighter, in which the protagonist’s struggles run parallel here and there to the main story.
Frank Miller’s 300 is another book known for its irony. I once heard it pointed out that 300 has a hyperreal, exaggerated aesthetic because it’s a story being told to inspire other Greeks to fight. But there’s more to it than that.
300 isn’t meant to directly glorify the things that it’s usually taken to stand for – hypermasculinity, nationalism, monarchy, and so on. It’s meant to make the reader unsure of what to think – to bewilder and challenge the reader. 300 tells us the story of Thermopylae in hyperreal images and bold language, lightly touching on little things like how King Leonidas scoffs at democracy. Trying to take the action and spectacle out of the context of this subtle undercutting would be naïve; it’s a shame that the book’s legacy, carried on in the film, is that the self-parody is no longer obvious to those who hold it up as a textbook of masculinity.
Art, obviously, is a crucial part of the ‘graphic’ novel. Since they took off from comic books, classics like the works of Alan Moore stay close to a style that is recognizable as that of the superhero comics of their time. Other graphic novels, however, opt for a different style, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Now, it’s interesting that, notable as some of these works are, they still adhere to the Western tradition, rather than adopting or adapting the Japanese style. If I’m feeling open-minded, I’d like to say that it’s because they want to appeal to a Western and Western-educated audience. If I’m feeling sarcastic, I know it’s because they can’t draw as well as the average Japanese mangaka.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of those books everyone reads. Drawn in a simple black-and-white style, it tells the story of the author’s father, a Polish Jew who was conscripted, and later imprisoned by the Nazis, before being rescued by Americans.
Maus is known for depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, non-Jewish Polish people as pigs, and Americans as dogs – whether this was a mere metaphor or something more is debatable. Is it interesting? Of course; it never gets boring, and the simplicity is a good vehicle for the author’s sincerity. It also works well as a metanarrative, because the father’s story is told to the son, and he himself relates to his father as he grows older; in one section, the author himself is shown reading a comic he drew to cope with his mother’s death. Does the narrative serve its possible political purpose, though, as a testimony to the Holocaust? Yes, it does – as much as any series of doodles can.
Another classic that’s right up there with Alan Moore’s work is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
It’s possibly the best-known example of how comic books emerged from an era of censorship and restrictions. Here was a superhero story – starring one of the most popular characters of all time – that mixed uncompromising violence and a world of darkness, literal and metaphorical. Here, again, were nuclear terrors and old age, but it’s grimmer in a way because the hero is Batman, a man who can’t look the other way like other heroes while his country falls to ruin. As brave and helpless as the next man, fifty-five-year-old Bruce Wayne grows from little panels in his car to the giant bat of legend as he takes on the wasteland that was once Gotham City.
These are only a handful of works, arguably insignificant in many ways in the wide ocean of the genre (in itself contested, as we began by saying). So what can we conclude about the great and terrible graphic novel? Perhaps our most significant conclusion would be that it actually exists – tangibly, too, as one can see in expensive copies of paperback Watchmen and hardbound Kingdom Come volumes made to look like Bibles.
We can say that the graphic novel exists, as a form that different artists can use to express powerful feelings, incompatible realities, and inscrutable historical truths, in a way that they could not in any other medium. Moreover, we can say that the graphic novel should exist, if only to show us what cannot be read.
My recommendations for the newcomer:
–The Dark Knight Returns
‘Gliding with ancient grace… unwilling to retreat as his brothers did… Eyes gleaming, untouched by love or joy or sorrow…’
–V For Vendetta
A vigilante fights fascism, and fortune smiles on his damned quarrel.
Superheroes, grit, an impending nuclear holocaust, middle age crises– there’s something in it for everyone.
–Superman: Red son
What’s better than Elseworlds? An in-depth alternate history with a Soviet Superman and Batmankoff.
A man keeps going back to the same bar for a very long time.
Title art by Trinamoy Das
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