(If you live in or near a locality with a large public library system and you're interested in graphic novels, give this route a try. I firmly believe that one big reason that graphic novels are seemingly forever stuck in that "on the brink" phase, where people are constantly saying things like "Hey, these aren't the funny books you grew up with!", is that graphic novels tend to be priced in so high a fashion as to seriously discourage random exploration of the medium. Do I strongly recommend Craig Thompson's Blankets? Absolutely. But if someone came to me and said, "I have forty bucks. Recommend some reading material I might like", I'd probably feel a little guilty if I advised them to blow their money on Blankets only to have it not be their cup of tea.)
I don't know if we're in some kind of "Golden Age" of graphic fiction, but there's just some amazing work being done outside of the standard superhero stories. (Not that there is anything inherently wrong with superhero stories in the first place.) To anyone who would dismiss the graphic novel along the lines of "I don't need pictures to go with my storytelling", I'd simply ask if you keep your eyes shut when you go to the movies!
Here are some thoughts on some recent reads of mine.
:: I never saw the David Cronenberg film of A History of Violence, so I have no idea how accurate the film is to the original graphic novel. I heard that the film was very good, so I checked out the novel on that basis alone, much as I did with The Road to Perdition a few years back. In that case, I found the ways in which the film diverged from the novel interesting, and I couldn't decide which version of the tale I preferred. (In fact, the versions are sufficiently different that I find it easy to like both equally.)
A History of Violence has much the same kind of feel as Perdition; both involve (at least in part) the way big-city violence comes to small-town America. Even though both books are by different authors and have different artists, the same kind of emotional pall hangs over the story in each, a sense of impending doom where happiness will be destroyed forever, and quite violently, at that. Part of this comes from the art of History, which has the same stylistic feel as Perdition, with heavily-lined black-and-white images that make the larger panels almost impressionistic in nature.
I found the tale of History a bit less gripping than Perdition's. In History, a pair of violent killers come into a small town where they are done in when they run afoul of the wrong guy to pick on. The rest of the story comes out of the reasons why Tom McKenna is the wrong guy to pick on, and just what the secret history he's concealing happens to be. I did find it a bit disappointing when it turned out that McKenna is your basic "running from the mob" kind of protagonist, but even so, the story does take some surprising twists as it heads toward its conclusion.
:: Of a completely different nature is Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi. I read Persepolis more than a year ago (and seem to have inexplicably not posted about it here), but I finally read the second volume just a few weeks ago.
Here is an amazing memoir of an Iranian expat, now living in Paris, who grew up witnessing firsthand her country's embrace of -- or descent into -- fundamentalism and oppression. The first volume deals mainly with Satrapi's childhood and early adolescence, while in the second Satrapi goes to live abroad to finish her studies. Thus the books tell two stories: the first, an internal tale of a society's willful decision to become fundamentalist, and in the second, a story about a person living abroad who happens to come from one of the more disliked nations on Earth.
As autobiography, Satrapi's work is riveting. She has a keen perceptive gift that is the key to all good autobiography; in our lives, we all tend to be our own heroes and villains from time to time, and Satrapi never shies from depicting her own faults as well as her own strengths, her own mistakes as well as her own triumphs. And her ability to put into very few words and images the strife that surrounded her country in that tumultuous period is particularly noteworthy. At one point, while discussing the fundamentalist government's focus on acceptable public clothing for women, Satrapi writes:
The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself:
"Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place? Can my makeup be seen? Are they going to whip me?"
...no longer asks herself:
"Where is my freedom of thought? Where is my freedom of speech? My life, is ti livable? What's going on in the political prisons?"
I wonder if there will be a Persepolis 3. I hope so. Satrapi's art is simple and evocative, and her writing is exemplary.
:: Moving into equally serious territory, last night I read The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot. In this book, a teenaged runaway girl named Helen is living on the streets of London for a time with her pet rat; she has run away from home because of her father's molestation of her. Over the course of the book, Helen draws much inspiration from the life of Beatrix Potter, to the point where she unconsciously (or perhaps partly consciously) begins to model her own life on that of Potter, with whom she apparently shares some parallels.
This is a difficult work to characterize. Parts of it seem almost fantastical, but those kinds of elements are always portrayed as being in the mind of Helen; and what I admired most was the book's insistence on the role that story and fantasy can play in helping us heal from unspeakable hurts. Too often we view fiction as "escapism", but in this story, Talbot gives us a character for whom fiction is an essential way of dealing with her particular part of the world.
:: And now into pure fantasy: The Life Eaters, written by David Brin and painted by Scott Hampton. This book depicts a World War II gone horribly awry when the concentration camps turn out to be massive "factories" for necromancy, thus bringing the gods of Norse mythology to horrible life.
Apparently this is based on a short story of Brin's (and it reminded me in part of a story of mine; I'll have to post that here at some point). It's a fascinating blend of fantasy and SF tropes, as well as an enjoyably dark tale about the borders between science and mysticism. My only complaint here was that to me the ending felt a bit rushed.
:: Moving into the folkloric type of talespinning, there was the utterly gorgeous Book of Ballads with art by Charles Vess and written by many contributors, among them Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, and Jane Yolen. Seriously, this book contains in a fairly compact package the work of some of the top names in fantastic literature today.
According to Terri Windling's introduction, in the 1990s Charles Vess illustrated a series of comics which simply told the stories of old ballads from the English, Irish, and other traditions. For anyone who is used to more "sanitized" folklore, the original tales and ballads often turn out to be quite dark, and a number of the tales contained in The Book of Ballads are downright grim. But each is done with charm, and Vess's artwork -- black and white, with so many tiny and precise marks that one wonders how much time Vess spends on a single panel -- is always stunning.
I recommend this book highly; it's made its way onto a short list of graphic novels of which I'd like to own my own copy.
:: OK, a brief digression here. I often have difficulty reading manga, and oddly enough, it's nothing to do with the right-to-left thing. (For those who have never tried to read an authentic manga, they are printed in reverse of the way we print books in our culture, and you read right-to-left.) This is easy enough to get used to. My problem with a lot of manga is the artwork: I often find it terribly difficult to figure out just what it is that I'm looking at, and in a graphic novel, that's not the effect one wants. The latest victim here was a book called Trigun, which I went into with high hopes, mainly because of its subtitle: who wouldn't want to read a tale subtitled "Deep space planet future gun action!"?
I'll try it again sometime. But for now, I found the art nearly incomprehensible a lot of the time.
:: OK, last one. This is the wonderful Castle Waiting by Linda Medley. This is another collection of installments of a comic, so the book ends without much sense of closure -- so I fervently hope this isn't the end! (And according to Medley's official site, this is only Volume One. Huzzah!) But the book is incredibly generous in its contents: there are almost 450 pages here. Lots to get through.
Castle Waiting is the story of the denizens of, wait for it, Castle Waiting. This castle is the formerly abandoned home of Sleeping Beauty (the first chapter tells that story from a different perspective), but is now home to a motley collection of odd characters (a steward who has the head of a stork, for instance) whose lives have all come together at this castle. Into their midst comes a pregnant woman named Jain, whose past is rather mysterious (and which is never really explained in the extant volume!). Medley delves into the backstories of these strange people who have made their home in this abandoned castle, with its water sprites and mischievous bodyless demons (he's a head with feet) and a nun from a cloister for bearded women and so on.
If I had to make an analogy, Castle Waiting feels cut from similar cloth as The Princess Bride; it's not parody per se, but rather gentle pastiche, loaded with in-jokes and inside stories that descend into other stories of their own. The book meanders all over the place, and never once did I mind.
Bring on Volume Two.