Biff, Bamb, Kapowie! Not your Dad’s Comic Book
Graphic Novels in the Library
There is art, there is literature, and the fusion of this is the graphic novel. These aren’t your grandfather’s underwear clad vigilantes. It’s not Batman fighting the Joker to save Gotham from an implausible fate once a month. Admittedly, sometimes graphic novels are just that, but in recent years they have greatly extended both their literary and artistic range. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent Hollywood blockbuster, The 300, a retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae. Before it was a movie it was a comic book series by Frank Miller who wrote the noir thriller Sin City, also made into a movie in 2005. Miller’s stories, gritty, dark, and vividly illustrated, rendered them naturally adaptable to the big screen. They also demonstrated that comics have indeed matured.
Though the comics Batman, The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Superman, and Blade were made into movies earlier, Sin City and The 300 are among the first comic book properties to become movies, at least in America, that didn’t feature a spandex clad hero as the protagonist. However, there is more to comics-turned-cinema than gritty heroism and noir tales. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta which critiqued a repressive totalitarian police state showed that graphic novels can make political statements. In fact, another work by Alan Moore, the twelve issue The Watchmen, helped demonstrate the diversity and potential of graphic novels as an art form.
The Watchmen, published in 1986 and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, showed to many readers for the first time the potential of graphic novels as a viable medium for artistic expression. The advantage of combining graphics with literature is that an author does not necessarily have to belabor a scene with heavy description. Instead it is left to the attention of the reader to discern the imagery and symbolism based on the closeness of their reading. Nowhere is this subtle level of meaning and shades of symbolism clearer than in the closing pages of The Watchmen. After the destruction of New York, there is a series of haunting and eerie panels of the aftermath and the toll it has taken on humanity. Carefully drawn in the background are concert marquees for the bands, “Pale Horse” and “Krystal Nacht.” Reference to these bands are interspersed in the panels in the graphic novel, often appearing on posters tacked to buildings, or on flyers carried by characters. The names of the bands, “Pale Horse,” and “Krystal Nacht,” serve as foreshadowing, the connotations and history of the terms being poignant harbingers at the conclusion of the story. While easy to overlook on a cursory reading, picking up on such subtle graphical clues can add a depth to the story not easily replicated elsewhere in solely print literature.
Published contemporaneously as The Watchman was Maus. Maus is the true story of an Auschwitz survivor as told by his son. While the characters are anthropomorphized as cats, mice and other creatures, it weaves a tale of the Holocaust and fathers and sons. The Watchmen, Maus and other titles were catalysts in giving rise to a trend of comics aimed towards an audience with adult sensibilities. Meeting the new demand for more complex and mature stories some larger publishers launched imprints catering to adult tastes, such as DC Comic’s Vertigo line.
While recognizing the graphic novel’s new found niche exploring adult and contemporary social issues, it is still not easy to answer why the genre has become so popular. Arguably, society’s pervasive multi-media have rendered many of us, and especially younger people, more visually aware and perceptive. The formerly pervasive print culture is now only one of many. Certainly, the graphic novel borrows heavily from the visual story telling techniques employed by movies. At the same time, the pacing is the same as a book where the reader moves as quickly or as slowly as they like. As an artistic medium the graphic novel combines the best parts of movies and reading in one innovative form.
Another cause for the recent surge in the popularity of graphic novels is the increase in availability of manga. Manga is a term typically used for graphic novels from Japan and Korea. Not so long ago, if one wished to procure manga, one had to head to a specialty comic store and hope for translations. Now, however, a walk through any large bookstore chain will show a large and ever increasing section of titles.
From relative obscurity to a $245 million dollar a year industry, manga graphic novels have expanded because of their incredible diversity. While American graphic novels have begun to branch out, they cannot currently match the variety in selection from the East. Japan has a long history of popularity with the graphic novel. Japanese readers of different generations, age groups, and genders will find manga books that appeal to them.
While many people think that the main themes of manga and Japanese comics are stereotypical battles of cute little monsters or heroes and heroines with large eyes and improbable hair colors, a much greater variety of subject matter is covered. Whether one wants a story about a tennis prodigy, a tale of student life, a trapped salary man with heavy metal dreams, a demon-slaying priest or a librarian chasing down rare books, the manga about it is available waiting to be read. Very popular also are the series of adaptations and retellings of ancient tales. The Chinese classic, “Into the West” or “Monkey King,” was updated and retold as Saiyuki. While the age-old principal theme remains, the characters and diverse story-lines have been updated to show that even a 2000 year old tale still has a relevance and resonance with a modern audience. Manga is helping to make the old new again. Whether old stories or new tales, graphic novels from the East show a breath of variety and scope not found elsewhere.
As a result of this surge in popularity and burgeoning scholarship, graphic novels have found a home in Boston College’s curriculum. Recognizing that graphic novels are more than mere comic books, Boston College has begun to offer courses that feature them. The English Department’s “Narrative and Interpretation” (EN 133.06) examines this genre as frameworks of narration and time in literature. Film studies’ “Robots & Owl-Eyed Heroes: Japanese Manga and Anime,” (FM 340) considers the origin, development and international appeal of anime and manga as an artform.
In response to this increasing demand for graphic novels in the curriculum the library has begun to add them to its collection. From ground-breaking American works to some of the latest titles from Japan, the library is providing students and scholars with the books they need. The collection will continue to grow as interest in this new literary style gains momentum.
From page to film, from East to West, the graphic novel has come into its own as a genre and taken its place as literature. The only question left to answer is, “Which one do you want to read?”