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.
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!