Images link with words

Graphic novels meld the best of both for the reader

Special to the Journal Sentinel
First Published, June 1, 2007

In the beginning, there were images. The words followed thereafter.

Before Gutenberg's movable type commercialized book-making in the 1450s, pictures were more important to literacy than words. The ancient Buddhist frescoes coloring the caves of Dunhuang enlightened weary merchants as they tramped along the silk trade routes, and during the Middle Ages cathedrals such as Notre Dame and Chartres were built as glorious representations of Christianity.

This tradition of telling stories visually may be as old as the caves, but only recently has it become a viable genre in popular reading culture. According to Daniel Goldin, senior buyer for Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, graphic novels "still have a long way to go to catch mainstream readers."

Whether it's because graphic novels seem too closely related to comics or whether readers are simply overwhelmed by too many choices, the reality is that most readers have never cracked open a graphic novel.

"It's a mistake to see the reading of visual texts as less worthy than traditional novels," said Leslie Fedorchuk, a professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. "As a culture we are more sophisticated visually, and even if that's not true for yourself, it's certainly true for your children."

But where does a curious reader begin?

"People are looking for guidance in their reading choices more than ever," said Goldin, and that's certainly true for graphic novels.

"Like a good movie or a good book," Fedorchuk observed, "you want to open a graphic novel and fall right in."

So consider the following list a primer to the beauty and the boldness of graphic novels. Pick one or two and fall in.

A visual primer

The best definition of a graphic novel is the simplest: Graphic novels tell a story in sequential visual form. Not all comics are graphic novels, but all graphic novels manipulate the comic format. "Zits" and "Boondocks" are comics. Even bound together in collections, they're still comics and not graphic novels.

Reading a graphic novel means letting the rhythm of the panels guide you, noting how the words and the pictures complement each other and how the narrative maintains its vision from page to page. "Everything you could say about a good piece of writing you could say about a good graphic novel," Fedorchuk said.

The originals

"A Contract With God" by Will Eisner (1978)

Eisner's seminal book pushed the graphic story out from under the crushing weight of clad-in-tights comic superheroes. Scholars and readers alike consider "Contract" to be the first graphic novel. With its detailed visual narrative, its realistic and poignant characters depicted in elegant pen-and-ink panels, this rite-of-passage story set in New York in the 1930s depicts a perspective of the immigrant experience that transcends a typical view of that world.

"Maus I and II" by Art Spiegelman (1991, 1992)

This is the classic that set the literary bar for the genre. Both volumes tell two deeply moving stories rooted in the horrors of the Holocaust. The first is Spiegelman's father's story of surviving Auschwitz and the second depicts the author's struggles to come to terms with his aging father and find peace in their relationship. The Nazis are drawn as cats and the Jews as mice, which forces the reader to see history from a distinctive and brutal perspective.

"Beg the Question" by Bob Fingerman (1997)

Like many graphic novels for adults, this one is explicit in language and images, but it's a riot to read. Fingerman's novel has an in-your-face sense of humor, and it's teeming with eccentric characters. Rob, the main character, is a cartoonist who is not above drawing smut to make a living, and his wife, Sylvia, is a bisexual hairdresser with a heart of a Marine. On the cover, the novel is described as "a cross between 'Friends' and 'Caligula.' " Puts "I'll be there for you" in a whole new light.

"Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" by Chris Ware (2000)

This classic is stunning to read. It takes its influences from retro consumer iconography and typography. Ware's color drawings look like images from appliance and toy ads of the 1950s and '60s. The book's plot is a postmodern history of an Irish-American family sometimes told in silent panels. The novel contains a few classic images that are recognizable even to those who haven't read the book, especially his opening panels of Superman plummeting to a New York pavement. These panels are a metaphor for the kind of graphic novel Ware was creating with "Jimmy Corrigan."

"The Jew of New York" by Ben Katchor (1998)

Katchor's novel can't decide if it's history or science fiction, but when you've finished reading, it doesn't matter. The book is as imaginatively plotted as it is drawn. To describe its plot as a history of a city misses the depth that layers each panel and the dense details and varied characters populating the pages. Although the book is dialogue-heavy at times, the overlapping panels and the clean lines create a brisk pace.

Rites of passage

"My New York Diary" by Julie Doucet (1999)

This is chick lit for big girls. Doucet's autobiographical memoir follows her from a Canadian convent school to the New York art world where her life gets as complicated and as crowded as the black-and-white pages of her book. Doucet has a dry sense of humor that keeps her sort of sane through a series of loser boyfriends and her emerging career as an artist.

"Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi (2003)

Persepolis was the capital city of ancient Persia; this is a memoir of the author's growing up in Iran to bohemian parents. The panels are drawn with simplicity and a primitive elegance. Their tone darkens and the lines thicken as religious intolerance and oppression fill Satrapi's life. This novel can be read as a young woman's coming of age story, as a testament of the human spirit, and as a memoir of political oppression and its consequences.

"American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang (2006)

This young-adult novel was a National Book Award finalist and deservedly so. Despite an opening panel with a truly lame joke about breasts, the book intercuts the fable of the monkey king from Mandarin Chinese with the story of Jin Wang, the new kid at Mayflower Elementary, and a narrative about a visiting Chinese cousin who is a caricature of Asian stereotypes. The end result is a striking tale about identity, acceptance and coming of age in a global culture.

The new classics

"1602" by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert (2004)

Neil Gaiman has to be the Stephen King of graphic novelists. He's as prolific as King and as original in his plots, and if you're a fan of the television series "Heroes," then that's another good reason to read this book. Instead of Linderman and Sylar, the Catholic Inquisition of the 1600s is tracking and torturing "witchbreeds," ordinary folks with superpowers. The panels are lush and richly detailed and move with a vengeance.

"Ghost World" by Daniel Clowes (2000)

Rebecca and Enid are not nice girls. No matter. This is a very nice book. It's beautifully drawn with a cynical attitude. From an omniscient point of view, Clowes presents a perspective of post-high-school adolescence that's harsh but compassionate and compelling. The lives of these two young outsiders are portrayed with grace and insight. Clowes is one of the genre's bestselling authors, and he co-wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of this book that starred Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch.

"The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo" by Joe Sacco (2003)

"The Fixer" is a non-fiction narrative about the life of a real fixer, someone who, among other things, connected journalists to possible stories in Sarajevo during the1990s. Sacco spent years covering the war in Sarajevo and, ironically, found his most compelling story in the life of the man who was helping him find the stories he was assigned to write. This adult memoir is complex and the images are rough and raw at times, but it captures realistically what it's like to live in a place where almost everything is negotiable.

"Box Office Poison" by Alex Robinson (2001)

Because Robinson's characters introduce themselves in the first panels you're drawn to them immediately. The lives of Sherman, Dorothy, Jane, Ed and their friends are chronicled in this big soap opera of a book, one with more realism than melodrama and a considerable amount of humor. The black-and-white panels are lively and cleanly drawn, capturing well the lives of these twentysomething characters.

"The Black Order Brigade" by Enki Bilal and Pierre Christin (2002)

First published in France, this graphic political thriller pits two geriatric bands of ex-Spanish Civil War soldiers against each other. The book's plot hints at films like "The Magnificent Seven" and other classic westerns, but its panels are boldly drawn and it makes a strong statement about the relationship between fascism then and now.

Fractured tales

"Billy Hazelnuts" by Tony Millionaire (2006)

This book is a deliciously creepy fractured fairy tale. A family of mice makes a homunculus, a supernatural servant being, to help them fend off the farmer's wife who wants to cut off . . . well, you know the story. They name their creation Billy and when the farmer's science-obsessed daughter replaces the flies the mice gave him for eyes with hazelnuts, he becomes her sidekick in a series of fabulous Oz-like adventures.

"It Was a Dark and Silly Night," edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (2003)

This is more an anthology than a graphic novel. But any book that gathers together the artistry of William Joyce, Barbra McKlintock, Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman and Basil Wolverton and asks each of them to create a story that begins with the line "It was a dark and silly night" is worthy of this list and of a child's bookshelf. This is the third book in Spiegelman's colorful "Little Lit" series of oversize postmodern comics.

Family chronicles

"Ethel and Ernest" by Raymond Briggs (2001)

Briggs is best known for his children's picture book, "The Snowman." This memoir chronicling the lives of his parents from the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s is as beautifully drawn and as emotionally layered as his most famous work. Briggs can move the reader breathlessly along with a series of small, detailed panels or he can stop the reader in amazement with a single panel of laundry snapping in the wind. Either way, Briggs is a master of the silent panel and of drawings that occasionally transcend their narrative to become small poetic moments.

"Palomar" by Gilbert Hernandez (2003)

Although this is a collection of stories set in a fictional Latin American town, the book still has narrative coherence as it chronicles the lives and loves of the men and women, mostly the women, of Palomar. Hernandez's stories are vibrant and visceral, and like many novels that contain elements of magical realism, the point of view shifts across the stories, the characters are passionate and excessive, and the reader relishes every page.

"Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel (2006)

In her first work, "Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life-Forms to Watch Out For," Bechdel established herself as a feminist force in the genre. Her newest graphic memoir is one of the first graphics to be short-listed for a mainstream book award. Bechdel's memoir of her psychologically abusive father and her childhood experiences of her family's funeral parlor (hence the book's name) makes David Sedaris' family seem idyllic. Bechdel's images are stark and immediate, and her literary allusions to James Joyce, Henry James and Shakespeare add a layer of complexity and humor to the book's already poignant narrative.

"The Ticking" by Renee French (2006)

This is a weird but wonderful little book reminiscent of Edward Gorey's "Gashlycrumb Tinies," only grosser. French has created a story about ugliness that may actually be a symbolic parable on the destructive nature of beauty. The book has a number of recurring motifs of slightly revolting and strangely compelling images, many of which may be meaningless. But if there is no meaning, that's probably the point.

"Blankets" by Craig Thompson (2003)

The soft illustrations and fluid motion of the panels in this book make it a touching graphic memoir. Set in the Midwest, Thompson writes of his young adulthood raised by fundamentalist Christian parents, his relationship with his brother, and his love for girlfriend Raina. This bittersweet book uses soft pencil-like drawings to create what is an ironic aesthetic given the intense content of the book. Thompson also uses perspective brilliantly to create tension and a little terror.

"To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel" by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel (2006)

The author, Cherson Siegel, was training to be a ballet dancer at the School of American Ballet when an injury ended her professional career. This graphic memoir of her childhood and her training is a charming children's book. The book's drawings are unified with the repetition of various images, like her shoes and her ribbons, to create movement from page to page.

"Brooklyn Dreams" by J.M. DeMatteis and Glenn Barr (2003)

Although this author's graphic credentials are in the superhero genre where he's co-authored a number of Spider-Man and Justice League comics, don't hold that against him. This is an engaging novel about growing up in the '70s and the moment in a young man's life when he discovers "the key to the universe." The story is told from the perspective of the young man at 40, so the narrative resonates with tangents and insights beyond its years.

The young ones

"Blindspot" by Kevin C. Pyle (2007)

This nominee for an American Library Association award captures the fascination for war and fighting that can be a hallmark of a boy's life. The particular boys in this book have created an imaginary world at war in the woods surrounding their house. In the beginning, the book's panels have a greenish camouflage tint to them. When the pages burst into color, the destruction of their imagined war and the consequences of their fighting turns real.

"Banana Sunday" by Root Nibot and Colleen Coover (2006)

What's a girl to do when her father's experiments have gone awry and she's left to take care of three talking monkeys? If you're Kirby, the girl in question, you meet the challenge. You keep the monkeys out of trouble and their secrets safe. This is a delightfully entertaining book for older children and adults who can still see humor in the silliest of things.

"Castle Waiting" by Linda Medley (2007)

With any good literature, first lines can be critical and this novel opens with a bang, a big bang that drives the king from his castle and the townsfolk from their village until there is nothing left of "happy Putney but the silence, and ruins, and the legend of the haunted castle." The castle then takes center stage and is the main character in this retelling of Sleeping Beauty (with a hint of "The Canterbury Tales" in the telling, too). The castle becomes a respite for restless sprites, abused princesses, weary travelers and an order of nuns dedicated to the subtle mocking of men. The panels in this award-winning gothic novel are richly detailed with interesting and quirky characters invading them.

Carole E. Barrowman is a professor of English at Alverno College.