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3 graphic novels for people who don't know what graphic novels are

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Message Adam Bessie

A few years ago, I asked  Julie, a friend who always has her nose in a new book, if she was into graphic novels.  

She said she didn’t like books with violence.

“No, no,” I chuckled, “graphic novels are like comic books…”

“Oh. Definitely not,” she interrupted, puckering her face like she tasted something that sour. “I hate superhero stories,” she exclaimed, sticking out her tongue to spit out the taste of the idea.  “I’m not into kiddie stuff.” She paused earnestly.  “Except I do really like Garfield. His lasagna fetish is pretty funny, eh? Even after all these years, the joke is still fresh.”

“Graphic novels aren’t those kind of comics,” I patiently explained, “they are more for adults.”

Julie’s face contorted again, this time into another disgusted shape, as if a middle-aged dude with a Magnum PI-esque mustache had just asked her to hop in his red Ferrari and jet to Robin Masters’ beach-side estate.

“What, like porn?”

After a few minutes of awkwardness, I finally was able to prove to her that I wasn’t a pervert, that graphic novels were not pornographic (at least not mostly), but rather were comics with more sophisticated story lines, like “real books,” with stories more complex and engrossing than even the most dramatic episode of Magnum (Well, excluding the high-literature that is the episode in which Magnum solves his own murder…while murdered).

Her confusion is pretty understandable, given how inept the term “graphic novel” is, because most “graphic novels” aren’t even novels, nor do they necessarily have any “graphic” content. Her confusion is also understandable, since “normal,” well-adjusted, mature adults don’t read comics in the United States, thanks in large part to the Comics Code in 1954, when comics were essentially neutered of all adult content to “save the children.”  Thus, even though the Code no longer exists, for the last 50 years, most of us have grown up associating comics with childhood, unlike countries like Japan and France, where even intelligent adults read comics. 

I know that I was much like Julie until my earlier 20s, having read nothing more than X-Men as a kid at the local arcade, where I would avidly rip through Wolverine’s adventures and, when done, pump up those ghost-things on the video game Dig-Dug.

After about 10 years off, all that changed: I was fresh out of college and teaching high school English and was steeped in “real literature:” Shakespeare, Conrad, Kerouac, Steinbeck, authors who told stories with symbolism and other important stuff, like climaxes and tragedy and whatnot. Then, in a local thrift store, I came across Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust memoir Maus and found everything I loved about thought-provoking literature somehow wrapped in the vivid format that pumped me up like those ghost-things on Dig Dug.  And since that time, graphic novels have started to take entire bookcases that once were devoted to books – much to the misfortune of my bank account, and Conrad (who is outraged that he has to sit next to a book with pictures).  

And so it was with Julie, when  she finally got around to reading my ratty copy of Maus. Now, along with Tuesdays with Morrie, she reads graphic novels, which aren’t all that graphic. Right now, it’s Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, a wonderfully human series that isn’t about lesbian sex lives.

Here are three more “gateway graphic novels,” to introduce you to the (not so) seedy and highly addictive world of adult comic books:

1. The Complete Maus, Art Spiegelman: Spiegelman’s epic memoir of his father’s harrowing journey through Auschwitz is a no-brainer for any list on graphic novels and is probably on every list ever written about them.  The story is a page-turner, thrusting you into Vladek’s struggle to survive the horrors of Nazism.  But moreso, it’s the story of the author himself, coming to terms with being the son of a survivor, and his guilt, and his father's guilt, and their complicated relationship.   However, most notable is how Spiegelman presents the story, with the characters all represented as animals (much like Orwell's Animal Farm): the Jews are mice, the Nazis cats, and the Americans dogs.  You can’t help but be moved by Maus, not only to better understand the horrors of the Holocaust, but to see the potential of comics to tell serious stories as effectively as “real books”!

2. American Born Chinese, Gene Leun Yang:  A central symbol in Yang’s award-winning story is the Transformer, the robot that could disguise itself in different forms.  Such is American Born Chinese itself, three stories which are much more than meet the eye.  I have assigned the book to my community college students the last 2 years, and each semester, the students are thrown off by the simple, cartoonish drawings – full of bright colors – which remind them of Sunday morning comics.  They all scoff at the book, wondering why a college course would focus on something so “dumbed down,” so childish.  Then, by the next class everyone has read the entire book, even those students who claim to have never finished a book in their lives.  Many share their laughter at the funny moments in the three stories in the book, and all are shocked by the complexity, surprised at how “deep” this “easy to read” book is.   They intently discuss how the story of Jin, the lonely Chinese-American trying desperately to fit into an all-white suburban school, relates to story of the Monkey King, the mythological Chinese monkey who desperately wants to be a God.  And they leave confused as to why a Chinese-American author would draw a story in which the main character is an extremely racist depiction of Chinese-Americans.  Many leave the experience, like Maus, surprised by how fun and thought-provoking a graphic novel can be.  Perhaps it will be the same for you.

3. Watchmen, Alan Moore( and Dave Gibbons (art)):Much like Maus, Watchmen is widely considered one of the first (and best) works of comics as literature, which Time Magazine regarded as one of the best English Language novels since 1922.  Moore, who wrote the comics behind the films V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell, pens this soon to be blockbuster film about the “real lives” of masked vigilantes (aka “superheros”).   The innovative sci-fi mystery inserts these “Watchmen” into a real history – into World War II, into the turbulent 60s, into the Cold War – and explores the motivations of people who run around in masks in order to take law into their gloved hands.  Moore treats these characters as real people, creating complex histories through “real” documents –  memoirs, psychological evaluations, press clippings – which enrich the already sophisticated story.  And beyond all the hoity-toity literary nonsense, the story is just a fun read, in which we are fully immersed in the Watchmen’s world, and the mystery the morally ambiguous Rorschart (a “hero” who wears a mask with a constantly changing Rorschart blot) tries to unravel.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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