This month’s It’s Lit! dives into the world of graphic novels.
Obviously, I’m a fan of graphic novels. I think that the format provides an interesting and engaging storytelling method. Sometimes I think of graphic novels as a step between novels and movies (storyboards anyone?). Other times I think of them as a great way to pair down a story to its elements. And then there are the times when I don’t think too hard and just enjoy reading graphic novels.
I’ve previously written about how the snobbery of literature is especially pointed when it comes to graphic novels. And it always seems to come back to holding up a very certain kind of novel as “literature” and everything else as “unworthy”. Something I’ve come to call defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.
Maybe if people just gave graphic novels a chance to entertain them…
In the past few decades, literature has expanded to not only mean the “novel” but “graphic novels” as well. Today we are gonna break down how the graphic novel went from the comic book store to the classroom. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
“Please…they’ll kill me.”
“I’ll kill you…worry about me.”
A long time ago Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark) imagined an imposing figure with large hands storming over the bridge into New York. Who was he? Why was he so pissed off? Who was he intending to kill? And so was born Parker.
Fast forward past 24 novels, 8 film adaptations, and countless impersonators and homages, and we come to this graphic novel series by Darwyn Cooke. I’m not a fan of most of the film adaptations of the Parker novels as they don’t seem to understand the material – although Payback – Straight up: The Director’s Cut was pretty close to getting it right. But Cooke did understand the material.
This series didn’t just adapt the novels to the graphic novel format, it improved upon them. The artwork especially captured the grit of the original stories. This was done without compromising on the story, remaining very faithful to the originals.
I have previously read The Hunter, The Outfit, and Slayground, and managed to get my hands on an Omnibus edition to read The Score and re-read the others. It was a treat. At the end of Slayground is a short adaptation of The Seventh, a novella I have previously read. Cooke managed to capture much of the story with just a few panels on a handful of pages. I think this short work is emblematic of the skilful artwork and storytelling Cooke has brought to these adaptations.
Unfortunately both Cooke and Westlake are not longer with us. Just as there will be no more Parker novels, there will be no more graphic novel adaptations by Cooke. It is a pity.
When I think of literature I think of an older guy sporting a greying moustache, sipping a sherry, wearing a smoking jacket, seated in a library of leather-bound books in front of a simmering log fire. The guy speaks with an aristocratic English accent and expounds on the greatness of some book that other older men dressed like him, sitting in similar log-fire warmed libraries, also like to read when not shagging the maid.
Now clearly not everyone who reads literature fits this image. Some probably can’t even afford a maid to shag. But it does appear to be an image that people aspire toward, an image that informs what they deem literature, and thus what they deem worthy of reading. Rather than judging any written work based upon its lasting artistic merit – although that definition is so subjective as to be useless and ideal for starting pointless arguments…. (cough) – people seem intent on creating boundaries before a work is allowed to be judged. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.
Normally I’d launch into a whinge about how speculative fiction is unfairly maligned, or how I’ve read crime fiction that has more artistic merit than most literary works. But instead, I’m going to talk about graphic novels. In an article on The Conversation, Catherine Beavis explained how the graphic novel Maus came to be part of the literature curriculum.
Despite this explanation, there was always going to be someone in the comments telling us how a graphic novel can’t be literature. I assume they wrote their comments whilst wearing a smoking jacket and taking a break from shagging the maid.
Well well……..so it’s art as literature.
Why not a more well-known comic (sorry graphic novel).
Not saying this isn’t a worthy addition to any curriculum, but more as social comment rather than literature.
Surely the novels of great Australian writers should be preferable – Winton, Malouf, Carey etc.
Let’s break these points apart one by one. As will be seen from further comments, the argument primarily revolves around the feelpinion that because graphic novels contain pictures they are art and thus not literature. A similar argument could be made for movies being TV shows and thus we could abolish the Oscars… actually, that isn’t a bad idea. Anyway, I guess we’d better break the news to the literature professors that Shakespeare’s plays need to be taken off of the curriculum.
The argument then moves to the “I haven’t heard of it, so it can’t be good” assertion. Maybe because they realise this isn’t a great argument, they immediately distance themselves from it. But we start to see the “worthy“ argument being formed. I’ve argued many times that “worthy“ is a great subjective argument put forward by people who think they are worthy.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a literary argument if someone didn’t cite some authors they deem worthy. For those unfamiliar with Winton, Malouf, and Carey, they are award-winning Aussie authors who write “interior histories” and about “people rebuilding their lives after catastrophe” and “people who experience death and will never be the same again”. None of those statements could be applied to a graphic novel about someone who survived the Holocaust… No sir.
Their list of worthy authors is as subjective as their comments about graphic novels and Maus. I could similarly ask why the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy isn’t on the curriculum. It has a lot to say about society and has entered the lexicon, which is more than can be said for any of the other authors mentioned nor the graphic novels being shunned. I could say the same again about Superman or Spiderman, which have implanted ideals and phrases of morality into society, regardless of whether people have read those graphic novels or not.
*Steps on soapbox*
I personally welcome any work into the class that will encourage kids to read, think and learn. And to anyone who derides graphic novels, they are clearly saying they don’t or haven’t read any.
*Steps down from soapbox*
The commenter responded to criticism of their subjective opinion:
That may be so, but my bigger point was that literature = words.
This is art with captions.
Not disputing that it may be hugely popular or good (even great)…
but literature it ain’t.
I think the appropriate response to this is a head shake. The problem is the black and white definition of what literature is, whilst ignoring the fact that the graphic novels fit the definition of literature. Pointing out the flaws in these opinions is as easy as saying that graphic novels, with very few exceptions, are composed of words. They also use graphics, but that is often a collaboration between the writer and the artists they work with. Thus, by the definition of “literature = words”, graphic novels are eligible to be classified as literature.
But anything to keep only the “worthy” books in contention as literature. Can’t have that kids stuff being called literary!
So I named three contemporary Australian writers – call me subjective.
I am not knocking the (art) form…just that it (to ME) is not literature.
Your opinion is obviously as valid as mine……don’t get huffy.
The last point here is one that irks me more than irksome irkers on an international irking junket. Opinions are not equally valid. That sort of subjectivism nonsense eats away at reality and suggests we “just don’t know, man”.
The commenter made a subjective list, so I put together some examples that were superior in quantifiable ways (impact on society, entering the lexicon, referenced by society) to show that the subjective claims were more worthless than a $9 note because clearly not much knowledge or thought was put into the claims.
There is also the idea of literary critique and argument, rather than stating feelpinions. I’ve stated an opinion and argued it, offering reasoning. The examples I countered with aren’t necessarily the best choices, but I have justified and quantified my argument, something you learn in high school literature class. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer, so clearly, someone in the literati agrees. And surely a Pulitzer prize winner is worthy of being on the curriculum. But of course all opinions are equally valid and “I’m entitled to my opinion”, dammit!
Surely the whole point of literature is that the reader has to imagine the scene described, the way words are spoken, the implications of what is said and much more. It’s all in the mind, which develops through reading.
A graphic novel presents the words and pictures with almost no imagining required. The number of words is hugely reduced to give way to often wasted space. In the example above there are 21 words, which if in normal lowercase type could be written in 10% of the space.
Sorry I’m not convinced graphic novels have any merit for senior students.
Shakespeare’s plays give stage directions and poetry is often deliberately obscure. So how do those examples fit this exclusionary definition of literature? I’m sure some artists would object to the idea that they aren’t conjuring a scene that develops in people’s minds. And is the idea to only allow readers to imagine a scene? Isn’t it about conveying ideas and emotions too? Isn’t this some great mental gymnastics to try to maintain Fort Literature from invasion by the Lesser Works?
The second paragraph is also exemplary of someone who hasn’t read many, if any, graphic novels. So, of course, this commenter wouldn’t be convinced that graphic novels are of any merit. First, they’d have to know something. But that doesn’t hold them back from commenting.
While I’m in the mood for alienating folks, let me also say that this is a good example of dumbing down literature.
Give the kids a picture with limited words and maybe they’ll get the idea.
Don’t kids these days have the attention span to read a novel?
The last graphic novel I read was 480 pages long and took many hours to read. It covered sexual identity, morality, the greater good argument, do evil deeds make us evil, etc, as issues. The last “literature” novel I read was about a woman who manipulated people to get what she wanted. It was ~300 pages long and took many hours to read.*
This argument is typical of people who have a snobbish attitude to something based upon pure ignorance of the topic. Similar statements have been made throughout time, decrying the dumbing down or declining standards of today’s youth. Oddly enough it has been proven false again and again only to be spouted once more.
There is a similar article on The Spectator – a home for uninformed opinion – which argues that if we let graphic novels into literature we have to let in everything. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. Maybe I’ll address that one at some stage when I’m feeling masochistic, but I’m going to leave it there. The maid has arrived.
*This comparison was true at the time of my original comments on The Conversation. I’ve read many graphic novels since, but no further literature novels.
Update: Nerdwriter made a particularly good video discussing Maus and how it is constructed as a story and piece of art. Every frame, every image, the whole page, has meaning. Kid’s stuff indeed.
Update: A great video essay about how you can’t judge art objectively.
In this outing for the CineFix team they have covered the classic graphic novel and movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta.
So, truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of the Alan Moore graphic novel V For Vendetta – yeah, yeah, I know: sacrilege. I actually gave up on it about a third of the way through, as such, it is hard for me to compare the book to the movie. Actually, that’s not true, I can compare how entertained I was, since I enjoyed the movie and couldn’t be bothered finishing the book. That should say a lot.
Moore distancing himself from all adaptations of his work is odd, but completely understandable given it is based upon having watched* The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie. That was the film that caused Sean Connery to quit acting, which gives you some idea of just how bad that movie was. But you are still left with his admonishments of adaptations, like V For Vendetta or The Watchmen, that were good films (IMHO) and captured the essence of the source material. Like most of the book to movie adaptations discussed in the What’s the Difference? series, when you see the breakdowns of differences you can completely understand why the changes were made. The example in this video was of Evie’s character arc to help the audience empathise with both her and V in a shorter format. The book and movie occupy different spaces, have different constraints, and are often made at different times for society.
Which is why I find Moore’s stance – or is that complaints – on adaptations of his work to be a bit precious. I mean, he was, and I quote, “getting money for old rope” as well as a much wider exposure as an artist. He has managed to influence popular culture (The Killing Joke was the primary reference material for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker). Not much to complain about. Unless the movie studios paid him in beard trimmers.
*Being a little flippant here as he was also sued over accusations that someone else’s script was plagiarised.
Update: I rewatched V for Vendetta recently and started reading the comic again. I haven’t finished the comic, but after watching the video below, I think the sentiments expressed by Moore and Wisecrack are valid. I’m not sure if I’m just 5 years older and wiser, or if I’m just impressionable and a sound argument will sway my views.
I’ve never entirely gotten onboard of Deadpool. On paper (boom tish) Deadpool should tickle all of my reading spots: humour, irreverence, action, my Ryan Reynolds man crush. But so far I’m still on the fence about being a fan. Admittedly I haven’t read Joe Kelly’s classic run, so maybe that is tainting my perspective.
So why read Deadpool Killustrated? Well, funny you should ask, voice in my head. I thought the premise and execution of Deadpool Kills The Marvel Universe was an interesting story: a very meta tale. After you’ve read Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe, you’d think that the idea of one Marvel character finding a way to kill all the other Marvel characters is pretty much tapped out, but the Deadpool version took that idea so much further. Killustrated is the logical extension of that story, and hence worth a read.
I’m only giving this three stars, however, as the story felt somewhat abbreviated/abridged (much like Deadpool Kills). The story concept wasn’t fully realised, but still worth a read.
With the new TV series Gotham currently being cast there has been a bit of buzz around what the storyline is going to be about. Unfortunately it is not going to be based upon this excellent series by Brubaker and Rucka (should also mention the art by Michael Lark). This would actually be a great way to do a non-Batman series, especially as it would be able to use the recent Nolan films as a lead in.
I guess people who read will be the only ones to appreciate a series focussed on Gotham city police trying to work in the shadow of Batman.
I bought this graphic novel on a whim. It popped up in my recommendations, the artwork caught my eye, it was on sale; you know, the usual impulse buy. But this French story is very interesting and engaging, much more than an impulse: a great read.
The premise is pretty standard: contract killer is hung out to dry on that last job. I’m sure there is a book of cliches out there for writers, if someone could send me the title so I could buy it, I’d much appreciate it. Anyway, it is Matz’ take on the character and story that works wonders. It is also Luc Jacamon’s artwork, capturing the details and inner workings of the protagonist. We get to see inside the mind of a hitman. There is also nudity, so, you know, bonus.
Volume 2 builds on from this edition nicely. It evolves, it progresses to a higher level that belies its first pages in Volume 1. I don’t want to spoil things, I mean, who didn’t figure out that Bruce Willis was actually a ghost, aside from the entire theater who threw everything bar the chairs at me? By not spoiling things I won’t be mentioning the protagonist’s growth from being a loner hitman to having friends.
If you like noir graphic novels, then this series is worth a read. Apparently they are making a film of this with David Fincher directing, so worth seeing before Hollywood ruins another book (ahem, ahem).
Graphic novel is a nice little term to make us comic fans feel like we have grown up and are reading more sophisticated fare than kids comics. If you want proof that there is no difference, just check the bastions of all knowledge: the Wikipedia topic discussions.
I’ve come up with a simple, definitive difference between comics and graphic novels: bad stuff actually happens in graphic novels. I remember the first Spiderman comic I read; he was fighting The Vulture and Kraven the Hunter. Spiderman got hurt, had work issues, women problems and had a cold. By the end of the comic he had defeated the baddies and only had women issues left to deal with, and they appeared to be on the improve as well. Kraven had the wind knocked out of him and went to jail. The Vulture was out cold from an electric shock and went to jail.
Let us compare this with Garth Ennis’ The Boys first edition. Within the first few pages a woman has been splattered against a wall and our protagonist is left holding her severed arms. A touch more graphic hence; graphic novel. Please excuse the homographic pun, I forgot to take my verbs this morning. Basically comics are not really for adults and graphic novels are definitely aimed at a more mature or adult audience.
As part of a Aussie Goodreads June Challenge I have decided to read a few more graphic novels. After watching The Losers at the beginning of this year I had already decided to read a few more of the works that were clearly taking Hollywood by storm (see what I’ve read here). I think it is always a good idea to follow trends from Hollywood, they always make good stuff.
Watchmen What review of graphic novels would be complete without Alan Moore’s classic. Great story, great characters, great visuals, greatly depressing ending. Rorschach is quite possibly one of the greatest characters ever created. They made a decent movie of this, but you need the director’s cut with the Black Freighter story included.
The Losers Andy Diggle wrote an interesting, humorous and offbeat series that was turned into a film in 2010. While the series is enjoyable I found that the witty dialogue and humour seemed to wane as the series continued.
The Gamekeeper This is another Andy Diggle written work, with Guy Ritchie as the creator. Take one trained killer and give him a job as a manor gamekeeper, then have organised crime kill his boss; do you see where this might be going? Yeah, thought so.
Batman ala Frank Miller Lets talk Batman: the non-superpowered superhero. Batman is one of my favourite comic book heroes and thank God/Christopher Nolan for actually making a decent film adaptation at last! Frank Miller took a comic book and made a graphic novel of it. Whether it be Year One, The Dark Knight Returns or The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller implores you to take Batman seriously. Oh and he has Batman beat seven shades of shit out of Superman.
Batman taken seriously
The Boys Ever thought that superheroes were always just a little too uppity? Ever get the impression that the good guys would often cause just as much mayhem as the bad guys? Well Garth Ennis has written a series for you. This series seems to have stemmed from Garth’s work for Marvel comics and a specific edition of The Punisher: The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe. This series has everything you would expect from an episode of The Young Ones. Fantastic.
300 I preferred the movie.
Witchblade I started reading this Ron Marz series for two reasons. The first was that I had heard there was a movie adaptation planned. The second was:
Empowered women = good thing
Ron Marz and Mike Choi have created a visually stunning and intriguing series. Aside from the obvious teen appeal of the character depictions, it has to be said that the Witchblade series has some fantastic artwork on display.
The Punisher Three pretty crappy movies have been made of this long running anti-hero series. In my mind there is only one Punisher author: Garth Ennis. I’ve read 3-5 years worth of Punisher comics and graphic novels this year, and I can actually spot when Garth has stopped being the author. You immediately notice that there is something lacking, or in some cases that it just plain sucks. Garth has had two runs at The Punisher, the first under the Marvel Knights imprint, the second under the MAX imprint. The MK series is, well, more aimed at people who don’t need to shave and think that vampires should sparkle. Garth makes it enjoyable, but really MAX is the graphic novel of Punisher. If they followed the Garth Ennis MAX story lines they might even make a decent Punisher movie before the second coming of Brian.
Reading Graphic Novels I have a few tips for reading graphic novels. Buying your graphic novels as comic book reader (cbr) files is the e-book of the comic world: quick, easy and none of that pesky walking to a store. Of course, just like an e-book, you need a reader for your e-comics. Preferably you want an LCD or similarly sharp screen to enjoy the artwork (Witchblade really pops on an HD screen). Another thing you want to do is wait. Wait for your series to be finished and the collection to be released. Nobody wants to wait a month for the next edition. It’s like waiting for the next episode of Justified (or any other decent TV show), except instead of a week you have to wait a month. More frustrating than explaining the movie Inception to a blind and deaf insomniac.