Many book lovers are voluntarily unfamiliar with the genre of the graphic novel. Perhaps this is because “graphic novel” calls to mind a jarring, unimportant story, with frame after frame of Japanese vampires battling large-busted androids with beams of light shooting from their wrists. But if you look on the right shelves, you can find graphic novels for any taste, many of which have nothing to do with magic or violent vengeance.
As to what a graphic novel really is, artist, writer and co-owner of Salem’s Corrosive Comics, Micah Baker, claims the distance between the noble graphic novel and the simple comic book is not so wide: “The purist maintains that the graphic novel is a long-form book presented in sequential art. It’s a comic.”
Graphic novels are usually collections of serial comics, collected and presented in book form. But they can be so much more. Many are gentle, compelling stories of pathos and survival; the marriage of literary achievement with art.
Geared toward a younger audience, graphic novels demonstrate a coming phenomenon in literature: the increased readability of young adult novels. YA is no longer only the domain of the Sweet Valley High Twins or the decades-old Scholastic paperbacks in the back of the seventh grade English classroom. Graphic novels, even those listed in the YA section, focus on deeper drama, trauma, and use complex literary strategies.
Comics are simply not what they used to be. The expanse of the superhero graphic novel/comic, if not necessarily shrinking, is certainly learning to share shelf space.
Shawn Cruz, also an artist, writer, and co-owner of Corrosive Comics said, “For nearly a century, we’ve been writing about super-heroes. I’m more interested in regular people, in extraordinary situations. I like the blurry line of good and evil. Politicians, corporations … these are the real heroes and evils that are in our everyday lives, but which is which?”
Of graphic novels, one of the most prevalent and approachable styles for a non-comic fan is the memoir. Though compelling, intimate stories, there can often be an intense vein of whininess running through many graphic novel memoirs. Or, as Sean Hollenhors of Corrosive Comics puts it, “ …navel-gazing, emo auto-bio comics that feel self-indulgent in a way that puts Silver Age Superman to shame.“
Often it seems the author’s only story to tell and illustrate is that of their unfair alienation in a conservative world that doesn’t understand their raw talents and burgeoning beauty. While alienation is the backbone of much great artistry, the truly talented graphic novelists know how to avoid self-aggrandizing in their work, through humor or humility. Or sometimes, if the story is just tragic enough, self-pity.
“Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel is an example of a widely admired memoir. It tells the story of the author, growing up in the peculiarity of her family’s funeral home, alienated by her own sexuality and her father’s dark secrets. “Maus” is perhaps the most famous of graphic novels, memoir or otherwise, where author Art Spiegelmen wrenches out the pain of his parent’s survival of the Nazi regime and its bitter aftermath. Similar is the popular “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, about an Iranian girl’s life being thrown into chaos due to the Islamic Revolution of her country. Despite the different tragedies at the core of these stories, all are told with dark humor haunting the edges of their frames.
Outside of the memoir category, many graphic novels present stunning stereoscopic dramas, many of which have the been the basis for Hollywood films, including V for Vendetta, 300, and The Road to Perdition.
Some graphic novels truly are strip comics at heart, using flip humor and simple illustration to examine deeper levels of humanity. Dupuy’s Get a Life and Wertz’s The Fart Party journey into the heart of man and woman respectively, the first being the travails of a hip but befuddled young French man, and the latter being Sex and the City as told by a lonely, crude tomboy.
Some graphic novels stand alone outside of easy categorization. The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a wordless sepia-toned tale of an immigrant arriving in a gentle and terrifying world the likes of which no reader has ever seen. Or Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, the story of an arrogant man and his redemption as told by his stillborn twin. That’s a simple description, for Asterios Polyp may be The Great Gatsby of the graphic novel world: appreciated on the first read but begging a dozen more before it can be totally understood.
The writers and authors at Corrosive Comics are quick to point out that a graphic novel need not be a somber minimalist memoir to be deeply moving. “Some of the most personally moving reading experiences I’ve ever had have been in fantasy-based works outside of the superhero super genre,” said Hollenhors.
The truth is that graphic novels, like every other form of book, from children‘s fic to self-help, has grown large enough to offer connection and entertainment to any reader. Any book lover, art lover, anyone who loves a good story of any tint, owes it to themselves to explore the option of the graphic novel.