Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox: Filling in the Gaps

This week our special guest is Dr. Kari Maaren, graphic novel maven and author of the popular webcomic West of Bathurst. She takes her place on the vulpine soapbox to tell us about the importance and validity of the graphic novel:

I have a confession to make. The fact that it is a confession is part of what will eventually be my point.

When I was growing up, I would sneak off to the library and spend blissful hours in the stacks, poring over old Superman comics. I had a vague sense of shame about these excursions. Little girls, Society told me, did not read Superman comics. Little girls who were into Timothy Findley by the age of twelve especially did not read Superman comics, which went “Bang!” and “Pow!” and “Zap!” and were all right only for stupid boys who couldn’t handle real literature. I was attracted to the comics, but I knew that the attraction was a terrible thing.

In the eighties, comics did carry that kind of stigma. Now, in a way, times have changed; we call comics “graphic novels” and discuss their cultural significance in university classes, albeit not without the disclaimer that we tend to tack onto a lot of genre fiction: this work is good for what it is, though of course it is not real literature…oh dear me, no. We acknowledge that comics can be meaningful, but by and large, we still see them as “just comics,” illustrated stories meant for people without attention spans. They are not quite novels, and they are not quite films, and they are certainly not quite art, and as they balance between the forms, we find them wanting.

The truth about comics is, like the form itself, somewhere in between: in between adulation and detraction, showing and telling, reality and imagination. To get at this truth, we have to acknowledge that where comics are concerned, we often take Theodore Sturgeon’s stipulation that “ninety percent of everything is crud” a little too much to heart; we are swayed by our vague sense that a typical comic involves a man in green spandex intoning, “Great Scott! That huge monster is trampling everyone! I had better use my heat vision on it before it’s too late!” The truth about comics is that this sort of clumsy storytelling is not unique to the medium and certainly not universal within it. The truth about comics is that they are not simply written stories illustrated in order to make them “accessible.” They are their own form, and they operate via their own rules.

The better comics marry verbal and visual storytelling seamlessly; the best could not possibly work as well in another medium. The illustrations are not simply showing what the words are telling but adding nuance to or even contradicting the words…if words are present at all. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the simple unmentioned presence of a Piglet doll in an old man’s bed adds an odd significance to the conversation that precedes its appearance; in Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust story Maus, what seems to be a simplistic system of visual symbolism—the Germans are drawn as cats, the Jews as mice, the Poles as pigs, and so on—ultimately folds in upon itself as the story renders the categorizations simultaneously meaningless and ominously meaningful. The visuals are the story, albeit not as they would be in a film; as Scott McCloud observes in his (comic) book Understanding Comics, story takes place in the space between the panels. The existence of this space allows us, not a director or an omniscient narrator, to make connections and build symbols from both what we see and what we fail to see. Comics are not limited to fantasy, but perhaps the reason they do fantasy so well is that they have, in fact, few limits. When an unexpected plague of locusts boils across the page and sweeps the protagonists of Jeff Smith’s Bone into a mysterious valley, we know that all bets are off; the locusts mark a visual and narrative separation between here and there, known and unknown. Visual storytelling thrusts us into a landscape in which the only map is in our own sense of that space between the panels.

Such a landscape is not filled only with superheroes, though the overriding view of superhero stories as inherently silly is a skewed one; our superheroes are simply mythic heroes in spandex, and they follow the same patterns as the heroes in “real” literature. A Batman story has as much potential for meaning as a story of Odysseus. Some of the best comics out there—The Dark Knight Returns, The Long Halloween, Batman: Year One—are Batman novels, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, long considered a turning-point of the medium, uses the figure of the costumed hero to take a complex look at the concept of heroism itself. However, there are other graphic genres. Maus is one of the first and best of the drawn autobiographies; more recent are two very different coming-of-age stories, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (set in war-torn Iran) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (a meditation on the author’s tangled relationship with her father). Chester Brown’s Louis Riel follows the titular character from the fevered imagery of madness to the stark panels that frame his final trial; Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad deals, allegorically, with the cost of war through the true story of four lions that escaped from a Baghdad zoo during the American bombardment. From the high fantasy of Smith’s Bone to the meta-storytelling of Gaiman’s Sandman…from the awkward adolescents of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World to the angry, confused, cocky, or wounded ones that stumble again and again into superherodom…comics cross and often explode genres.

It will probably be a while before the “Bang! Pow! Zap!” stigma fades entirely. We’re too used to thinking of what McCloud calls “sequential art” as a genre rather than a medium; we’re too willing to assume that comics are merely unnecessarily illustrated stories, dumbed down for children who can’t read proper books. However, the fact that some people now believe erroneously in the superiority (rather than simply the equality) of the form indicates that we will, perhaps, eventually be able to settle on a happy medium. In the process, we may find a gap of thought in which small girls with overactive imaginations can get into that elusive space between the panels and dream without shame.

Thank you Kari for this spirited defence of the graphic novel, and for the original artwork. If you’ve enjoyed this piece, watch out for the upcoming trilogy of Batman articles by Kirsty, Kari and manga expert Lesley Gallacher!

17 comments on “Thursday Soapbox: Filling in the Gaps

  1. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)
    August 7, 2008

    As someone who, in her teenage years, was quite happy to read both DC comics and Dickens without seeing any contradiction, I really enjoyed this. Thanks.

  2. Moira
    August 7, 2008

    Well, that was riveting. I don’t quite know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got …

    My only contact with graphic novels was a good one … Rick Geary did a wonderful graphic version of “Wuthering Heights” … He somehow managed to telescope Emily H’s leviathan into a very slim volume without actually missing out anything crucial or in any way diminishing the original.

    I certainly wouldn’t sneer at graphic novels and/or comics … partly because I can appreciate the amount of sheer hard slog that goes into producing them.

    I’ve just remembered Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” – I suppose that’s a graphic novel too, isn’t it? That … and the really poignant one about his parents … “Ethel and Ernest”, was it?

  3. RosyB
    August 7, 2008

    That was great! Just read it on the run but so much to think about there I will be back later armed with comment and questions – (hmm sure everyone’s looking forward to that). My interest has definitely been piqued recently with this and the other graphic novel stuff planned.

    You say comics aren’t art, but it is interesting how a lot of the art of the past in churches, in friezes – hell the Sisteen Chapel works a little like a comic book in terms of the story told in sequential panels – works a bit like a comic strip in terms of narrative and story and the interaction between them.

  4. Kari
    August 7, 2008

    RosyB: I should clarify the “art” comment (which was meant to be from the perspective of people who didn’t like comics); I didn’t have room to elaborate on the issue in the article. Comics aren’t ONLY art, though they certainly incorporate it. I would argue that comics most certainly count as both art and literature. However, a lot of people would probably categorise them as kitsch because 1) they “cheapen” art by incorporating words and stories and 2) they are mass-produced. I think these people have problems, but maybe that’s just me.

    I probably come across as a little defensive in the article, yes? I blame a certain English-student friend of mine. A couple of weeks ago, I was telling him that I would be teaching a pop-lit course in the fall. He responded with an eloquent, “…OH,” then spent a bit of time sneering at the idea that comics could possibly count as literature in any way. This particular friend is a fantastic person, but he has very definite feelings about what is “worthy” to be studied. (He was also teasing me a bit. I lose my temper sometimes. My friends find it amusing.)

    If you’re interested in the history of comics (including the bits about sequential panels in churches), you may like to check out Scott McCloud’s _Understanding Comics_, which is a graphic look at how comics work and why we have been attracted to sequential art for so long. The oldest comic he examines dates from thirty-two centuries ago. We have been telling ourselves stories through pictures for a very long time.

  5. Lisa
    August 7, 2008

    Excellent Soapbox today. Lots to think about there. There’s something about graphic novels that is incredibly powerful.

    I loved my brothers’ comics (alas I was not bought my own) but haven’t set eyes on one in years, so will have to rectify that. As a writer and book blogger, sometimes it’s a welcome relief not to be bombarded with dense paragraphs of text and yet still be involved in a story.

    How well do you feel GNs translate to film and television? I know it was considered a dud by many, but I thought the film Unbreakable (the plot of which was heavily tied into graphic novels) was riveting. I am also a fan of the Batman and Superman films and have watched every episode of Smallville.

    On a similar note, music videos with a graphic novel-type feel have become very popular, with this amazing one from Flobots attracting almost six million hits on YouTube.

    I didn’t think this piece came across as particularly defensive – no more than our other Soapboxes. It’s lovely to have someone talk so passionately about their area of expertise.

    Many thanks for this article.

    P.S the accompanying image is wonderful (and really made me laugh). One of our best fox-related images so far, methinks.

  6. Kari
    August 7, 2008

    Lisa: I think GNs can sometimes translate well to film, though they can also be handled very badly…just like novels. I’m not particularly fond of the Frank-Miller-is-God-and-if-we-make-really-pretty-films-based-on-his-comics-we-won’t-have-to-worry-about-their-content Club. _Sin City_ and _300_ are gorgeous, but it’s a little too easy to get lost in all the nice pictures and forget about the problematic themes (to be fair, it’s mainly Miller I’m having a problem with here, not the films per se). I do like _Unbreakable_ a lot; I think of it as the last truly good film M. Night Shyamalan made before he completely lost all perspective.

    Oh…and if you want to see a bigger and slightly less fuzzy version of the fox-heroine comic, go here:

    http://www.massey.utoronto.ca/alumni/foxheroine.html

  7. Jackie
    August 7, 2008

    I was thrilled to see a fox comic panel accompanying this article, which was a terrific soapbox. It was funny, historical, literary and as Moira said, riveting. I’m familiar with some of the non-superhero comics such as “Maus” and “Persepolis” and am planning on looking for some of the other titles mentioned.
    Considering the time and work that goes into some of the graphic novels, as well as the complex plots in many, I look forward to when they are not just ‘cool’, but taken as a worthy literary form in it’s own right.

  8. Kari
    August 7, 2008

    (Note: I submitted this comment an hour ago, but it didn’t show up. If it ends up appearing twice, I apologise. I’ve added stuff this time around because I am incapable of shutting up for any reason whatsoever; I’ve also removed a link I had in there, just in case it made LJ think the post was spam.)

    Lisa: I think GNs can sometimes translate well to film, though they can also be handled very badly…just like novels. I’m not particularly fond of the Frank-Miller-is-God-and-if-we-make-really-pretty-films-based-on-his-comics-we-won’t-have-to-worry-about-their-content Club. _Sin City_ and _300_ are gorgeous, but it’s a little too easy to get lost in all the nice pictures and forget about the problematic themes (to be fair, it’s mainly Miller I’m having a problem with here, not the films per se). I do like _Unbreakable_ a lot; I think of it as the last truly good film M. Night Shyamalan made before he completely lost all perspective.

    It’s too bad that so far, Alan Moore’s GN’s have all been cursed with disappointing Hollywood adaptations. However, the new _Watchmen_ trailer actually looks promising. I live in hope.

    Jackie: The “coolness” factor is sometimes frustrating. Some people are unable to tell the difference between saying, “This medium is worth checking out; here are some of my favourites,” and, “Comics are the BEST THING EVER, and anyone who disagrees is the DEVIL! Read them all! If you hate them, you are a worthless human being!” I’ve known readers to turn against the whole medium because of all the hyperbole.

  9. Lesley
    August 7, 2008

    Nice piece Kari. Some of it is close to what I will be talking about at a conference at the end of the month (once I’ve written the paper).

    To be pedantic, and I know you like a good bit if pedantry, Scott McCloud didn’t call comics ‘sequential art’; Will Eisner did. McCloud tried to move beyond that definition and produces a horrifying unweildy definition of his own, which I refuse to repeat. It’s also brilliantly vague.

    For my own part, I’m always amazed by how much commentary on comics, both academic and non-academic, insists on their ‘cinematic’ qualities. I guess it’s just because there’s oodles of film theory out there for the lazy to apply to comics, but I think that does comics a disservice.

    I’m also amused to be called a ‘manga expert’. We shall see…

  10. Kari
    August 7, 2008

    Lesley: Yeah, sorry. That was lazy of me. Actually, though, McCloud does tend to fall back on Eisner’s definition, just because his is so huge. In the first chapter of _Understanding Comics_, he spends an amusing several pages expanding the definition, then eventually concludes that “in most cases, this [i.e., “sequential art”] is the only definition we’re likely to need.”

    Since you won’t repeat his full definition, I will. McCloud defines “comics” as:

    “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

    Try saying THAT ten times quickly.

    Considering that comics predate cinema by a hell of a long time, I wish people would stop describing comics as “cinematic.” The forms are not equivalent, and animation and comics are not the same thing. Rant rant rant rant rant!

    You can be a manga expert if I can be a graphic-novel expert. I thought I was a medievalist. Don’t tell anyone.

  11. estermacedo
    August 8, 2008

    Brilliant article, Kari, as per usual. I’m a big fan of your work, in all their various media and genres. Keep up the excellent work. :o)

  12. kirstyjane
    August 8, 2008

    Hey, I know you’re a mediaevalist, but I was posting in a hurry and stuck for a way to say that you were exactly the person to tell us about this particular subject on this particular day. So I went with the great Yiddish word maven, which I think describes you just fine.

    Complainers can submit their own descriptions from now on. :p

    Excellent piece, and I am looking forward to developing this new aspect of VL further.

  13. Kari
    August 8, 2008

    Heh…I know, Kirsty. I was just joking. I also quite like the word “maven,” mostly because it rhymes with “craven,” one of the best words ever. It’s too bad Poe never had a chance to use “maven” in “The Raven.”

    *Waves at Ester from across the Don Valley*

  14. clom
    August 11, 2008

    Comic to Film translations are problematic for a variety of reasons:

    i) Too much respect for the source material inhibits the storytelling in the film.
    (X-Men, Superman)

    ii) The conviction that the film must look exactly the same as the GN creating a strangely “dead” world.
    (V for Vendetta)

    iii) Appalling dialogue that barely works in speech bubbles but makes audience want to die when it’s uttered by an actor on screen
    (Most Frank Miller adaptations, although Neil Gaiman seems to be engaged in his own personal war against believable dialogue)

    iv) Manifest inability to understand what the Graphic Novel is about/Made by satanists in order to goad me into committing suicide/Is just so awful that you want to weep all the water out of your body
    (League of Extraordinary Gentlement, Hancock, Wanted, Ghost Rider)

    Occasionally you get a wonderful coalescence of talent where the source material, adaptation, director and cast manage to completely NAIL it.
    (Ghost World, Hellboy, the last two Batman films) This is a rare and wonderful moment.

    Warning: The above are merely the opinions of a barely-literate Graphic Novel enthusiast who just wants the Watchmen movie to be brilliant. Use of these opinions may cause endless arguments in the pub. These may end in violence.

    Kari, your point about people being turned off because of the polar positions within the Graphic Novels are/are not literature is completely on point. I feel that the most alienating aspect of GN’s is the lack of nuance on either side of the “debate”. Which isn’t even a debate, it’s largely a matter of taste and we all know they always end in tears and recriminations and sulking and slammed doors.

  15. Lesley
    August 11, 2008

    Kari: Yeah McCloud does kind of fall back on Eisner’s definition, but he still tries to go beyond it. At least he knows his definition is hideous.

    I’d join you in your rant about the comparison of comics/graphic novels/whatever you want to call them* and cinema, but I fear we’d bore everyone else to death. I think that so many people’s complete refusal to notice the rather obvious fact that comics are not films, and they are not simply storyboards for them either, is possibly the source of much of clom’s misery. The fact that film storyboards often do resemble comics does not mean they are equivalent. Film storyboards are produced in the service of telling a story cinematically; comics are produced to be comics and to tell a story in that form, making use of it’s own specific strengths and weaknesses. I don’t see why people expect the transition between the two to be straightforward.

    Incidentally, most of the adaptations from film to comic are equally horrible, if not worse. This is especially the case when they seem to think they can just add speech bubbles to the existing movie frames. Way to utterly deaden a story…

    * Personally, I couldn’t care less what people call them, but some people seem to care a lot.

  16. Kari
    August 11, 2008

    Lesley: Eh…I don’t care what people call ’em. I use both terms.

    I agree that we 1) shouldn’t bore everyone to death and 2) are thinking along the same lines regarding the storyboarding issue. Comics are not simply convenient film outlines. Clom’s #2 above is a case in point (though I disagree that _V_ is all that much like the GN, visually or otherwise); some directors choose to make Coles’ Notes versions of comics instead of recognising that film and comics are different media and need different approaches. Admittedly, certain directors make the same mistakes with novels. I found the first _Harry Potter_ movie kind of boring because Chris Columbus, in trying to translate EXACTLY what he had read to the screen, sapped all the magic (ironically enough) out of the story.

    I expect there’s another article (or series of articles) about adaptation in here somewhere.

  17. goolloog
    November 8, 2008

    I here the newcomer. Not absolutely I will understand with topic. Explain, please. http://kopitop.ru/map.html

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This entry was posted on August 7, 2008 by in Special Features, Thursday Soapbox.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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