Comic novels for starters
Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your LifeBy Paul Gravett
Aurum Press, £18.99
Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life is a beginner’s guide to one of the most rapidly growing regions of the book publishing world. Thirty of the most acclaimed examples of the form are discussed, along with their lineage and the rather elastic nature of what constitutes a ‘graphic novel’. An idiot-proof introduction is provided for those utterly unfamiliar with the medium, covering comic book symbology, graphic devices, framing, ‘sound effects’, and so on. There’s even a brief response to the question: ‘Which do I read first – the words or the pictures?’ Among the examples chosen are Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust recollections, Maus, works by Chris Ware, Joe Sacco and Daniel Clowes, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which is both a dense detective story and a rumination on moral conditionality. Elsewhere, the psychedelic allegories of Jim Woodring’s The Frank Book are explored, as are Osamu Tezuka’s manga epic, Buddha, and Will Eisner’s collection of immigrant vignettes, A Contract with God. Other, secondary works are introduced by means of their association with more established titles, whether in terms of technique, market niche or subject matter. The charcoal atmospherics of Carol Swain’s Food Boy get a deserved mention, ostensibly – and perhaps bizarrely – on the coat-tails of Jaime Hernandez’s Locas series.
Likewise, Craig Thompson’s bittersweet autobiography, Blankets, is linked with Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. A sequence of keywords at the foot of each splash page also connect various titles by themes – science, religion, mental disorders – a system which, amusingly, connects Kurt Busiek’s whimsical Astro City with Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell. The book is generously coloured and the choice of highlighted pages and panels is largely apposite, although the necessary rescaling occasionally leaves their captions and speech balloons at the edge of legibility.
Ten essays outline the history and evolution of various trends and themes, from confessional comics and period pieces to postmodern super-heroism, with countless historical asides. (It is, for instance, intriguing to discover that, in 1940, anti-war agitators launched a hate mail campaign against Jack Kirby for depicting Adolf Hitler being punched by Captain America.) In a chapter titled ‘The Superhuman Condition’, Gravett traces how the most widely ridiculed comic book genre came to produce some of the most sophisticated graphic novels, as writers and artists set out to deconstruct these iconic creations and map their allusions and allegorical implications. Or, as the writer Neil Gaiman put it, to see what would happen if, ‘all this dumb, wonderful, four-colour stuff has real emotional weight and depth, and means more than it literally means.’
Given the format of the book, there will doubtlessly be those – myself included – who will grumble about what has been denied sufficient attention, or indeed any attention at all. (Surely the landmark Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, warrants more than four goddamn words?) But this is, of course, all part of the appeal. Newcomers will find plenty to entice in a manageable form, while old hands and comic junkies will take delight in compiling their own corrective lists.