I was in a branch of Waterstone‘s recently and asked where the graphic novels were. ‘We don’t keep them any more,’ I was told, ‘they just get stolen,’ It’s a small triumph for the form, I suppose, that it encourages reading among the thieving classes; but it’s a shame that it gets harder to buy graphics just when it seems that they are beginning to win the struggle for serious critical recognition. Of course there are still diehards who dismiss graphic novels en masse as immature or flippant reading matter best suited to young readers reluctant to read ‘proper’ books.
It’s true that there’s a pretty leaky border between ‘comic books’ and graphics, and that movie and TV spin-offs and fantasy books (often daringly and beautifully drawn) are predominant. Yet the term ‘graphic novel’ was coined in 1978 to describe Will Eisner‘s immensely serious A Contract with God, and some of the greatest graphics of the last 20 years have dealt with extremely sombre matters: the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman‘s two-volume Maus and Joe Kubert’s Yossei; the Hiroshima bombing in Keji Nakazawa’s two Barefoot Gen books; nuclear war in Raymond Briggs‘ When the Wind Blows ; war and ethnic cleansing in Joe Sacco’s Palestine and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo.
Indeed, if there is a criticism to be made of the form generally, it would be that graphics tend not towards the lightweight and the comical, but towards the shadowy and the bleak. Even the good old escapist superhero genre has turned darkly ironic; see, for examples, Batman – The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
The fact is, though, that there are now as many genres of graphic as there are of mainstream prose fiction; and in one important respect the graphic is far more challenging and experimental than the prose novel. By combining text, art and the ‘grammar’ of movies and animation, graphic novelists have devised new, startling and complex narrative techniques which make interesting demands on the reader’s verbal and visual literacy.
Actually, strip cartoonists have always taken a subversive approach to logical narration; look at collections of Winsor McCay’s weird and beautiful Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and little Nemo, and George Herriman’s brilliant Krazy Kat, which date from the early years of the 20th century and were a major influence on the ‘underground’ comics of the 1960s and 70s. Contemporary graphic sci-fi / fantasy novelists, such as Bryan Talbot (The Adventures of Luther Arkwright) and Neil Gaiman (the extraordinary Black Orchid, illustrated by Dave McKean), as well as the ongoing The Sandman series make it a point of honour to offer few concessions to the reader, weaving together different time frames and points of view to create a ‘parallel universes’ style of narration which, in a prose novel, would deter all but the most sophisticated readers.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Boggs
Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
Maus by Art Spiegelman , –
Persepolis by Mariane Satrapi
The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman
V for Vendetta by Alan Moorie
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave
When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs
written by Mal Peet is an English author born in North Norfolk, who writes novels mainly for young adults. He has written novels such as Keeper, The Penalty and Tamar.