I mostly read graphic novels nowadays. My mom once asked me accusingly, “Does that mean you read books about sex and porn?!”
Sorry to disappoint, but the graphic novels I read have pictures of talking mice, angry spouses, and manic reiterations of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The history of the graphic novel is both chaotic and intriguing, but also somewhat secondary to the history of the “real” novel (we’ll get to that). The first comics in the United States came about through newspaper comic strips in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Over time, newspaper barons like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst began to seek out comic artists, which made comic creation a desirable profession. DC Comics and Marvel came into existence around this time, and with these two publishers, the disposable comic book was born.
In the 1950s, the powers that be became disturbed by the emerging “sex, drugs, and violence” in some comics and instilled a Comics Code, pushing comics with “adult themes” underground. Comic sales fell and would be slow to recover. In the 1960s, a comic critic named Richard Kyle coined the term graphic novel, asserting (and this is a paraphrase) that there was no reason why artists couldn’t create text-image mash-up novels. And thus, the graphic novel was born. The graphic novel differs from the comic book due to its length and typically more true-to-life feel. While the comic book is a periodical, graphic novels are typically published in standard book format.
Now, before you think that the graphic novel’s popularity soared immediately (because who doesn’t like pictures in books?), consider that the origin of comics came from mud-slinging newspapers and entertainment magazines. It would take time for the graphic novel to establish a presence in the school of thought that deemed literature in the canonical sense. I would venture to say that we still are not quite there yet. However, that doesn’t mean one can’t become acquainted with graphic novels and discover the enriching power of words and pictures. So here are three of my favorite graphic novels to date:
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Maus is a story within a story. The author, Art Spiegleman, interviews his father, who recounts the story of his experience growing up during the Holocaust and World War II. The second story is Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s personal history, which includes his marriage to a beautiful wife, his capture by the Gestapo, his life in the camps, and his life after the Holocaust. In the novel, the Germans are cats, the Jews are mice, and Polish Gentiles are pigs. Although the novel is in black and white, each frame is packed with narrative, dialogue, and reflection. The images are poignant, though sad at times. Ultimately, Maus is a true story about family and loss through generations after the Holocaust.
Building Stories by Chris Ware
Building Stories comes in an awkward-to-carry-around-campus, Monopoly-sized box. Now before you maniacally yell, “What’s in the box?!” (Brad Pitt style), consider that Building Stories is probably the most illuminating and riveting text I have read. It’s infuriating, relieving, sad, honest, and one of the most empathetic texts out there. The “story” comes in multiple physical forms: book, newspaper, game board, pamphlet, booklet, and handout. I’m not kidding. One of the many points of this story is that you, dear reader, have to build the story yourself from the many pieces it comes in. The main character (if there is one) is a middle-aged amputee who reflects on her childhood as a young amputee, her love life (with an older man), her almost-pregnancy, her real pregnancy, and her entrance into adulthood and marriage. There are multiple intersecting stories (including one about Brandford Bee, a sad bumble bee) and an abundance of variation in frame presentation and color. Building Stories is an example of how “you have to know the rules to break the rules”, and Ware breaks the rules well. This novel engages with a wide array of emotion: you’ll cry and be angered, and you’ll be empathetic and thoughtful.
Marbles by Ellen Forney
Marbles is the most recent addition to my collection, and probably my favorite graphic novel, if I had to pick just one. Forney tells the story of her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, her reflection on her own history, and her coming to terms with how her manic and depressed episodes affect her creative process. The main question throughout the novel is: “Can I be both creative and sane?” Forney discovers how to navigate her art along with her diagnosis in a way that allows her to be true to her sense of self. This novel is in black and white, but does include a variety of presentations. Some pages have traditional panels, some have a single drawing, and some change viewpoints so you are looking through Forney’s eyes at various books and pieces of art. The style definitely bends the rules of the graphic novel, but is an honest account of creativity and mental illness. I cannot put this book down.
Others to read that I haven’t mentioned above, but that are quite good: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. There are plenty of others – just go to Barnes & Noble or your local independent bookstore (as Matt said last week). Even if you aren’t looking for a particular book, go to a bookstore. Just go.
Many of the graphic novels I read are a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, memoir and biography. The beauty of the graphic novel genre is that it inherently bends the rules by mixing words and images to create one lively, ingenious thing.
Ashley Whitman is working toward her Master’s degree in English at Virginia Tech. She is currently studying how authors with mental illnesses and psychological disabilities use graphic novels as a way to communicate their experiences. In her free time, she writes nonfiction (usually having to do with medicine), practices calligraphy, and watches too many crime dramas.