Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Graphic Novels

Okay, I think I can just about stop doing the nerdy "graphic novels" air-brackets.

You remember the post where we discussed the fact that some literary critics on the BBC didn't know how to 'read' the things? Well, that probably isn't so far-fetched. Often, a novel is full of impossible, trite and inapt descriptions that seek to convey, for instance, a sense of place. They work in absence of a visual image, employing metaphor and simile and symbolism, and almost always speak of comparison, which is of course one of the constraining limits of language itself. A graphic novel, on the other hand, still uses the same language, but the image is often there, on the page, where 1,000 or more words of descriptive text would be. The written text then, the words on the page, can be more sparse or even non-existent. It seems that when this is the case, the literary critic cannot understand how to 'read' the work, and so, one assumes, how to judge its literary value.

At the moment, literary value is awarded a text according, it seems, to its seriousness of subject, so a text dealing with current events, or a text dealing with an historical figure, is regarded as more worthy than a text that is purely funny or entertaining. Moreover, a text that deals with religion, or current affairs or historical events, will be given a good deal of license for bad graphics, than a more 'entertaining' title. This is why the Guardian can produce an article on how marvelous graphic novels are, and yet at the same time giggle into its sleeve about manga. This supposed value placed on one text over another is how Canons are formed.

At the moment, the only graphic novel that exists for most literary critics is Persepolis, which passes the Canonical tests on several counts, it is from 'away', so it is exotic. It is by a woman cartoonist; which is always rare in the UK where Posy Simmonds is our token 'lady drawer', the cartoonist is also from 'away', the ideological issues raised in the text are in keeping with our western views and, importantly, other reviewers and other countries have lauded it, so Britain's press have a safe and easy job 'researching' the work.

To be fair, Persepolis is pretty good, and it would be wrong to start disliking it simply because the desperate to be fashionable literati have hitched their fashion-wagon to the text. Persepolis is a good read, and the drawings are okay. Tom Spurgeon has mentioned the drawing style falling a little short of the very stylised drawings of the animated movie, which is I think a fair point, but there is enough imagination and vibrancy in the artwork to suggest the creative leap from the artwork on the page to the artwork on the screen. In other words it is possible to imagine the lines on the page morphing into the work on the larger canvas.

It does seem, I have to say, to be the case that it is only after a graphic novel has been made into a movie, that some of these critics even discover the text exists. I have even read reviews where the critic has assumed that the graphic novel, on which a movie was based, is actually a novelisation of the movie, which is funny in a meta-textual kind of way, but very sad in many others. It is also fair to say, I think, the indigenous graphic novels are hugely undervalued in the UK, by the critics if not the readers, and From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell is a case in point. Of course at its heart it's an historical tale, so ripe on one score at least for Canonisation, but then it does tackle the subject of Jack the Ripper from the conspiratorial angle of the Royal Surgeon William Gull, and the possible Masonic links of the case, so it blots its copybook on ideologically anti-establishment grounds.

It is, however, a wonderful piece of writing and the artwork is sumptuous and elegant. It moves, you see, not just the tale, but its illustrations, it moves in time it never jars and dislocates and that is a quality that graphic novels often lack, expecting the reader to make huge leaps of faith instead of allowing us to see what is happening next - which is surely one of the greatest tools at the disposal of the graphic novelist.

In Road to Perdition, which I enjoyed more in the cinema than the movie version of From Hell, the movement is not always successful. The transition from one point of view to another or from one scene or situation to another, is not always seamless. At times it seems to stutter, causing the reader, this one in any case, to double-take in order to be completely sure. In this case I would agree with the BEEB's literary crew, some graphic novels can be quite difficult to read.

This seems to me to be down to the choice of drawing and often, perhaps, there is a tendency by the illustrator to go for a 'money shot' rather than for a drawing that works much better with the text. In this way, Eddie Campbell makes by far the better choices, and is not afraid to draw talking heads or an empty room, if that works better. Although some good historical research has been done here, I feel the Cannon-makers would think it to pulpy and populist.

In Blankets, author/illustrator Craig Thompson creates a wonderful sense of movement. He evokes a landscape that seems to work hand-in-hand with the elements causing the reader to read more slowly or more quickly depending upon what is happening in the drawing. It's almost as if the wind blowing the grass on the page, in way that is familiar and evocative of growing and playing boyish games, is also blowing on us and our words and our struggle to find them. It is a very strange effect and one that I am aware might just be happening to me (so don't email me about it - I'm aware).

Without the drawings, the words needed to convey the settings and moods in Blankets would make it a substantial novel. It is a novel in the style of To Kill a Mockingbird, but set in a more contemporary world. It may not be instantly liked by the Cannon-makers, but my guess is that its quality will, over time, become even more, apparent.

Houdini the Handcuff King, on the other hand, just didn't do it for me. There's a lot to like about it, but I am not overly keen on the story or the artwork. It just feels a little like an exercise in style to me. It lacks the emotion of Blankets and the draughtsmanship of From Hell. It looks, at times, like it was loved in parts and rushed in others and it just has the feel of something someone came up with over a quiet pint, 'you know who would make a good subject for a graphic novel? Harry Houdini'. That's still the case.

Houdini was hugely popular in his day and an heroic figure to growing boys, so the books historical credentials put it in the frame. There is a nice amount of research and the tricks Houdini used are nicely displayed, but it lacks emotional depth, overall, so I feel it will be broadly overlooked when the Canon is written.


Brian Fies said...

That's a nice, insightful essay, thanks for writing it.

I think I'm coming around to the view that the graphic novel's yearning for literary respectability is hardly worth the fight. There's something faintly desperate and pathetic about it, banging on the clubhouse door begging to be let in, and it's an argument that can only really be won by creators doing one excellent job after another for a long time--building, as you suggest, a canon. In this, I think we're sometimes our own worst enemies. I've met comics fans who argue with a straight face that "Watchmen" is the best work of literature they've ever read. The only possible answer for that is that they need to read a lot more. Too many readers' standards are too low.

In point of fact, I think it's inarguable that graphic novels haven't yet produced anything on par with the best of Dickens/Twain/Joyce/Hemingway/Orwell/Literary Giant of Your Choice. They just haven't. I'd like to think that graphic novels have that potential, but I sometimes wonder if there's something inherently limiting in the medium. In any case, what I'm getting at is that may be the wrong comparison to make. I suggest we worry less about bashing in the door of the other guys' clubhouse than building our own. If, in time, ours becomes interesting and impressive enough, they'll come to us.

It's late at night, that's off the top of my head, and I may change my mind tomorrow. Thanks for the good provocative post, though.

Rod McKie said...

Hey Brian, thank you very much.

How is the new book coming along?

I agree. I worry about the 'new idea' of knocking out any out-of-coryright text and graphic novelising it because it dictates a sort of limiting view of the text. Also, if the cartoonist is unfamiliar with the author* and of literary symbols and tropes, they will ignore significant details.

I think of texts like the Ted Hughes poem The Thought Fox, a poem that is designed to create images only in the readers' head, and I can imagine someone making a horrible, limiting, 'correct' visualisation, to interpret it.

Also, I'm a big fan of magical realism and I'd hate anyone to limit the images in that story to their point of view.

*A cartoonist who drew a short story of a meeting in Paris, over tea, between Joyce and Proust in a CJ special, actually boasted he was unfamiliar with their work.