Upon Ed’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels lately – or comics, I’m not sure which. They’ve all been non-fiction, so are they still graphic novels? I’m gonna go with graphic novels because of their long-form nature – when I see the word ‘comic’, I think first of strips in the newspaper, like Peanuts and Garfield.
They’ve been quite a revelation, these graphic novels. My reading hasn’t just been changed by the addition of this bright new medium; it’s been broadened and given new life. I hope you’ll bear with me while I cast my eye back a little to illustrate how this new enthusiasm fits into the context of my life.
It’s funny that I should associate Peanuts and Garfield with the newspaper, because when I was a kid, I borrowed and read all the Peanuts and Garfield books in Tokoroa Public Library several times over. I never read them in the newspaper. I even bought a few cheap Peanuts collections with my allowance, books that are now long gone. (I never bought any Garfield, and I’m glad now that I didn’t because reading Garfield as an adult has been one of the most jarring revisitations to childhood I’ve had. Like, did I really used to laugh at this?)
More than Peanuts and Garfield, I read Tintin and Asterix. I think Tintin was my first exposure to comics. On about my seventh or eighth birthday, a compendium of the three Tintin books – Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and The Blue Lotus – was given to me by parents, and I was soon reading each of the stories over and over. I already loved reading, and read voraciously, but Tintin allowed me to escape into a world I could literally see, not just imagine.
The following year, I was given another compendium containing The Calculus Affair, The Red Sea Sharks, and Tintin in Tibet. I remember being moved by Tintin’s relationship with Chang, the Chinese boy he saves from the river in The Blue Lotus, and their tearful reunion in Tintin in Tibet. Because I read them all so many times – possibly into the hundreds – I can also a remember a number of specific images, like Haddock’s curled-up beard when Calculus lights his microfilms on Haddock’s pipe, or the final ‘shot’ of Tintin in Tibet, in which the yeti looks longingly across the plain at the departing travellers.
Tintin is like a series of shots, a storyboard for a film. I still haven’t seen anyone convey movement in a static image as well as Hergé could. The stories are often as full of plot holes as the dumbest Hollywood blockbusters, but the drawings themselves are so memorable. Pretty good cast of characters, too.
As a kid, when talking with friends, I was adamant that Tintin was not a ‘comic’ but a ‘cartoon’, which to me implied its status as serious art. There began my prejudice against comics in general, or what I narrowmindedly thought of as comics.
Asterix, meanwhile, has followed me into adult life more than anything else I read in childhood. I liked Asterix in those days but preferred the fast-paced action and earnestness of the Tintin books. When I read through the entire Asterix series as an adult, however, I marvelled constantly at all the wordplay that had flown way over my head years before. What’s more, all this wordplay was developed twice – once in French by Goscinny, and again in English by those translation wizards Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. I’ve never read the French editions of Asterix but someday, if my French ever gets good enough, I’d love to do so.
I do remember the images of Asterix well, too, especially Uderzo’s broadly demonstrative facial expressions. The bit where the major-domo tastes Asterix and Obelix’s stew in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath ALWAYS cracks me up, as does the bit in Asterix in Switzerland where Obelix tries to ‘speed up the works, by Toutatis’ and immediately gets wasted drunk. No doubt there are others out there who can recall it in an instant too.
After going through Asterix again – this was about five years ago – I didn’t seek out any more comics. The term ‘graphic novel’, which came up with relative frequency in conversation with various friends and family members, was still off-putting to me: it conjured visions of dark sci-fi drawings with lots of blood and exclamation marks. No real reason for that, of course. It was my way of closing my mind off to them, perhaps so I could keep the world a little more manageable. It’s bad enough thinking of all the films you want to someday see, let alone all the books you want to read.
I also saw the film version of Watchmen and hated it. After hearing so much about the supposed genius of the graphic novel, the terribleness of the film seemed to validate my preconceptions.
Then, a few months ago, Ed got The 120 Days of Simon out from the library. It was really quite vacuous: a man I would hate in real life travels around Sweden having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs, then tells his story through cartoonish illustrations and unexceptional (though relatable) dialogue. To my surprise, I raced through it in an hour, thoroughly entertained. I guess I’m as voyeuristic as the next guy.
Afterwards, the sense of satisfaction at reading a 400-plus-page book in such a short space of time was something I hadn’t felt before. It was a minor epiphany: graphic novels are a way of reading many books without using up all my waking hours! I decided to seek out more.
Next, Ed recommended the work of Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator who has written graphic novel travelogues about his time in various unusual locations around the world. I started with Shenzhen, which was very good, and then went on to Pyongyang, which was not as good but fascinating just for the fact that it was about the everyday life of a foreigner in North Korea.
When I look back on reading those two Delisle books, I can’t remember many of the images. My brain is wired for language, it seems, so I focused on the dialogue and narration much more than the pictures. Not surprisingly, the drawings I remember most clearly are the ones that were unaccompanied by English words, such as a hilarious scene in which a Chinese man gets into a lift with Delisle and bellows into his ringing phone before realising he hasn’t pressed the button to answer it. I wonder if this means my brain can only properly process one form of input at a time, in this case either pictures or words. I’ll bet it’s possible to train your brain to do both.
Delisle has done quite a bit more than those two books, including some well-reviewed work on Burma and Jerusalem, but I wanted to get into some classics of the genre first. A little research brought two titles quickly to the surface: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman. Persepolis is the story of the artist – an Iranian woman – growing up in her post-revolution homeland, while Maus is the story of the artist’s father surviving the Holocaust in Poland and Germany. Both are widely hailed as exceptional works of art in any genre – Maus won a Pulitzer – and as essential reading for any graphic novel enthusiast.
I decided to start with Persepolis because I’ve been very interested in Iran lately. I want to get a broader picture of Iran than what we get from most news reports, which show virtually nothing beyond a tyrannical government and a faceless, obedient proletariat. Persepolis was perfect because Satrapi was a woman (i.e. not a man with a beard) from a well-off but somewhat dissident family, which couldn’t be much further from the fundamentalist Islamists I had previously pictured when I thought of Iran.
It was a brilliant memoir, full of internal conflict as Satrapi wrestled with her love for a homeland that felt less and less like home. She illustrated the dynamics in her family clearly, and with admirable and honest empathy for all the times she drove her parents crazy. She also didn’t shy away from her passionate views on human rights, the veil, censorship – the kinds of things that artists in Iran have been jailed for. I was entertained by her sense of humour and enlightened by her bitter insights. Persepolis enriched me as a person. It also got me the email address of a PhD architecture candidate from Iran, who was handing out questionnaires in Civic Square one afternoon and saw me reading it. A golden coincidence.
As it was with Delisle, I don’t remember many of Satrapi’s images. Most of the time I would skim across the top of each frame, where the majority of the dialogue and narration was placed, and more or less ignore the illustrations. Perhaps the skill of taking both text and images in at once will develop with experience – or perhaps it’s just that those details you missed can be revealed on subsequent readings, just like with any other book.
Then came Maus, which is the reason for writing all this. Maus is purely extraordinary. Schindler’s List used to be the work of art I would immediately think of when moved to consider the Holocaust for one reason or another; henceforth, it shall be Maus. Here are some of the reasons why:
- The central character is compelling. He’s racist, cantankerous, and miserly, as well as being chivalrous, resourceful, and very intelligent. He speaks in a grammatically imperfect English – “one of the boys what we were in the attic together, talked over to the guard” – which builds up a distinctive voice in your head as you read it. He loves and loses almost everything.
- Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from the most horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. He illustrates so many ways to die in just the level of detail that you won’t be put off reading any further but won’t forget any of it, either.
- With Maus, I DID remember a lot of the images afterwards. In fact, I’d seen some of them before: in a third form social studies exam, more than half of my life ago, we were asked to read a page from Maus and then answer questions about it. (I had no idea what it was at the time, of course.) When I came to that page in the book, I recognised it immediately. I think this is a testament to Spiegelman’s straightforward approach to detail in his drawings, which aims to tell the story without too many lines getting in the way. He also employs the simple visual metaphor of drawing each race as a different animal – Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, Germans as cats – to help embed those images.
- The story is fundamentally about one man’s experience, but that narrower focus allows for a richness in detail that broader works wouldn’t have time for. In sticking to his dad’s story in this way, Spiegelman ends up speaking directly to people’s individual experience of the Holocaust, which is much easier to relate to than a history lesson. The fact that his dad’s life intersected with so many others helps, too, as they move in and out of the narrative. You get a sense of the staggering numbers of lives involved – on all sides.
On the back cover of this edition of Maus, there was a quote from the Washington Post: “impossible to describe accurately, and impossible to achieve in any medium but comics”. The latter part seems very true to me: it’s a perfect marriage of illustration and language, both of which are essential to the way the story is told. The narration allows you into the characters’ heads so you can see the illustrations on the page from their perspective as well as your own. And because it’s a printed page, rather than a moving image on a screen for example, you can linger on a particularly compelling image for as long as you wish.
As for the ‘impossible to describe accurately’ part, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but I think the point is that it’s considerably more valuable to read Maus in its entirety than it is to skim over its Wikipedia page. It was, for me, an incredibly moving and inspiring experience, and I cried a little as I read the last page. It’s good to know I’m not so caught up in my own scattered thoughts that I can’t be moved to tears any more.
I notice that something common to all the graphic novels I’ve read so far is that they are memoirs, so maybe my enthusiasm is just as much for the confessional nature of memoir writing as it is for the fact that they’re in illustrated form. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that I’ve long felt a deeper affinity with film than with words on the page, and I hardly watch films nowadays compared to the amount I read, and the graphic novel is a happy middle ground between the two that I find doubly satisfying. Maybe graphic novels remind me of the exhilaration I once felt reading Tintin, how I could blast through a book and be entertained for half an hour – a kind of Freudian link to some of the most purely content moments of my childhood.
Or, maybe I’ve just lucked into beginning the genre with its most broadly appealing work. Whatever the case, graphic novels – comics – cartoons – whatever – are a legitimate art form and I am thrilled to have finally discovered them.
As mentioned before, graphic novels are not eating into any of my other reading. They’ve simply added more time and more discernment to my reading habits. I’ve learned that my brain can switch from one printed story to another, just as it can switch from longform journalism article to another, or from one music album to another, or from one internal monologue to another. What graphic novels are eating into is my time spent watching Youtube videos and liking things on Facebook, and I’m not complaining about that.
Next will be the work of Joe Sacco, who was once featured in The Caravan and has been widely acclaimed for graphic novels about turmoil-stricken places like Palestine and Bosnia. After that, maybe I’ll try and break down another the wall to another consciously overlooked writing genre. Poetry, probably.