The Graphic Novel: 5 Titles Worth Your Time
So, what exactly is a graphic novel? The term is a nomenclature that became popular in the 1970s. The term actually first appeared in the 1960s, but Will Eisner’s 1978 A Contract with God launched the term into popularity. Famous comic writer Alan Moore once joked that “graphic novel” was just a marketing term for “expensive comic book”. Author Neil Gaiman has commented that he takes the term as a compliment, but he feels it is used sometimes to show that we can “deal with something good being done as a comic book”. While there is much debate over the exact definition of the term, it is generally thought of as a group of comic books that tell a continuous story. So instead of reading a single comic book that has a beginning, middle, and end, a graphic novel will link several comics together (usually in one large bound work) to tell an extended story. Most of them do begin life as individually published comics later brought together in large published work. While many graphic novels do emphasis the term “graphic” in their content, there are many great works available for all ages.
Graphic novels are one of the frequently ignored children of literary genres, but they have so much to offer in story and characters. Keep in mind that graphic novels always have two authors: the writer and the illustrator. The artwork always tells just as much of the story in this amazing literary form. If you have ever been curious about them or if your curiosity is now piqued, here is a list of five of the best graphic novels to start with.
5. Runaways, Vol 1: Pride and Joy (Brian K. Vaughan, Illustrator – Adrian Alphona, 2006)
During an annual get-together, six teenagers secretly witness their parents murder an innocent girl. As they begin to investigate, they discover many secrets hidden within their own homes. They begin to suspect that their parents may be evil supervillians, and they are being raised as the next generation of a group called The Pride. The police and government officials are also involved, so their only choice is to run away. Uncovering their own super abilities and the truth behind their origins, each must decide if they are willing to betray their inheritance for the greater good.
This story is definitely one of the less “graphic” of the graphic novels. It is a fun read. The artwork is in color, and kind of reminds me of a Saturday morning cartoon (but in a good way). The colorful panels correlate with the quick, Whedon-like dialogue and fast paced action. It may not lead you into a great intellectual discussion, but the great characters carry the story. While many of the main characters are typical teenage archetypes (Alex, the shy computer geek, Gertrude, the brainy nerd, Karolina, the pretty, flaky, vegan, Victor, the jock, Nico, the goth girl, and Molly, the overly naïve), they show great character development through the story. It is like a modern version of The Breakfast Club with amazing artwork, funny dialogue, secret hideouts, superpowers, and even dinosaurs.
4. The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye (Robert Kirkman, Illustrator – Tony Moore, 2004)
You can barely have a conversation or read the news today without someone mentioning The Walking Dead. But like most great television and films, this show has its origin in the published word. The premise of the story is familiar to any one who has every seen a zombie film: the world has been overrun with the undead, and the living must fight for survival. The story focuses on Rick, a former police officer who wakes up from a coma after the zombie apocalypse has started. He is thrown naïvely into the new world in search of his missing wife and son. So far into the series, the focus has stayed in Georgia and on the survivors Rick comes across.
The artwork is black and white, but don’t let that deter you. The bleak coloring adds to the interminable despair the characters continually face. The coloring also cuts down on the spray of violence so as not to take too much away from the story. But never fear if you are looking for violence, there is plenty to go around. If you thought the television show went too far with some of the horrible things people can do to each other, the comic goes much further. The character of the Governor in particular is even more sadistic and cunning. But any violence is always overshadowed by character who are seeking faith and the will to survive in a new world that seems hopeless. If you are a fan of the show, don’t worry too much about spoilers. While Kirkman’s Walking Dead holds many similarities to the show, the characters face some different obstacles and not always the same death sentences.
3. Watchmen (Alan Moore, Illustrator – Dave Gibbons, 1987)
Like The Walking Dead, don’t be put off if you have seen the 2009 film version of Watchmen. Most readers agree that the graphic novel is far superior. (Isn’t the book always better?) Alan Moore is one of the most acclaimed comic writers of all time. He is also the author of V for Vendetta, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and several Batman graphic novels. He brings depth to his characters, particularly superheroes, by revealing their dark sides under the colorful costumes.
Watchmen deals with an alternate 1980s New York City where superheroes exist. These are not your parents superheroes. They deals with issues of sexual assault, pedophiles, government conspiracies, vigilantism, and old age. The background is set against a Cold War-like situation of a portentous nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union. There are other real historical events present which are changed due to the presence of superheroes in this world, such as different outcomes for the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s presidency. Most superheroes have gone into retirement after the Keene Act is passed outlawing them. The story begin with the death of Edward Blake, a.k.a The Comedian, who has continued his costumed persona under a contract with the government. Rorschach, a costumed vigilante, investigates Blake’s death, believing there is a conspiracy to eliminate former heroes. Rorschach sets out to warn other retired costumes, Doctor Manhattan (who is also employed by the government), Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk Sprectre after her mother), Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), and Dan Dreiberg (the second Night Owl). The subject matter is very dark and mature against the colorfully drawn characters and panels. As the heroes deal with their own mortality, they find that someone may be trying to terminate their existence, and Moore asks the famous question of “Who watches the Watchmen?”
It’s an interesting concept to see what life is like for superheroes once they grow old. It goes along with the saying of “never meet your heroes”. Outside the spotlight, these heroes drink, have affairs, and do other things that normal people do. Alan Moore tends to show the dark side of the super life and that all heroes are really anti-heroes underneath their costumes. They have flaws, but are judged heavily for mistakes that could take away from their “good guy” stature. It could be seen as a reflection on how society treats the celebrity statue–nothing in your life is allowed to be private and every flaw will be scrutinized. If we accept our heroes’ flaws, then we eliminate the false perfection we feel we have to live up to.
2. Maus (Art Spiegelman, 1986)
Cartoonist Spiegelman uses the graphic novel format to tell the true story of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, surviving Nazi occupied Poland and Auschwitz. The story is told in a cartoon format with different animals representing different groups of people: mice represent the Jews, cats the Nazis, and other non-Jewish characters are pigs. It begins in 1978 with Art visiting his father to interview him about his past experiences. He tells the story in a nonlinear format, going from his present time of speaking with his father to back to his father’s childhood.
While it is drawn with cartoon-like animal characters, this story is not a children’s tale. The story of survival is filled with the horrors of war and concentration camps. The black and white drawings emphasize the grim tale and allow it to seem more historical than it might have been in bold colors. The animal characters add to the story by showing the cat-Nazis as predators to the mouse-Jews as prey. The pigs as other non-Jew, non-Nazi characters do not seem intended to be offensive but to show others as an ambivalent characters who do not generally fit into the predator/prey category.
The story is ultimately about a father trying to share the past with his son, who initially sees it as story to sell. Art struggles to understand his father’s past detachment from his family and his severe stubbornness to change–the very traits that helped Vladek survive the camps. As Vladek tells his story, his icy demeanor chips away. While Art can never fully understand what his father went through, Maus reads as a dedication to a father’s survival and forgiveness from a misjudging son. Maus is not only a visual masterpiece, but a phenomenal literary work that breaks any graphic novel stereotype. It is, deservingly so, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
1. The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (Neil Gaiman, Illustrators – Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III, 1988)
One of the few graphic novels to ever make the New York Times Best Seller list along with Maus and Watchmen, The Sandman is a must read for anyone interested in comics, fantasy, mythology, or a visual odyssey. It is a collection of stories that requires several readings to fully appreciate the creative writing skill that went in to creating an unforgettable graphic novel.
The title character of The Sandman is actually Dream, the lord of dreams, also called Morpheus, who is the personifications of dreams. The story begins with a magician and his cult trying to call upon Death but inadvertently capturing Dream and trapping him for 70 years. During this time, the world of dreams begins to break down, and some people are trapped in a dreamlike state until Dream finally breaks free. He sets out to take revenge upon his captors and to find his three totems of power (a ruby, a helm, and a bag of sand). He must recover these objects to set rebuild his dilapidated kingdom and restore the world of dreams to right.
The complete story of Sandman is difficult to explain. It has stories within stories within stories, but they all tie together by the character of Dream, even if he is not in the story. Some of the stories are about Dream’s family, including Death, Despair, and Desire. The character of Death, in particular, is unique in appearance and demeanor; I can’t say much more without giving away a surprise element surrounding the character. There is even a story revolving around cats and how they once ruled the world. Some of the stories seem bizarre but are so engrossing that you do not question the significance of how they will fit in later on. Most of the stories are not for the faint of heart. They deal with issues of rape, murder, dismemberment, serial killers, and many other serious but fantastically dealt with controversies. Like The Walking Dead, the panels are black and white and do tone down the gore but little is left to the imagination when it comes to the violence.
If the idea of graphic violence turns you off from Sandman, try to think of it as an adult fairy tale instead. There are morals and lessons here to be learned. The immoral do not go unpunished. The themes and mythological allusions are endless in this series. There is something for everyone to relate to among the story and characters. For comic connoisseurs, Gaiman uses his expansive knowledge of comic book characters and includes numerous references throughout. Although the story is told in black and white, the witty dialogue and superb storytelling lend readers colorful descriptions enough to satisfy the most skeptical of the graphic novel genre. It is a reading experience that will leave you breathless and, hopefully, reaching for more graphic novels in the future.
There is still much awareness that needs to be raised to have graphic novels placed in the same literary canon as other great literary works of the last few decades. They have great value in reaching the most reluctant reader and should be praised for the time and effort that goes into developing a written story accompanied by a visual one. The above graphic novels are just a few of the widely growing genre. There is something for everyone with categories spanning across all genres: children’s, romance, horror, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, and history. If none of the above appeal to you, here are few others that are considered top-notch:
V for Vendetta (Alan Moore, 1982)
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2000)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, 1986)
Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan, 2003)
Fables (Bill Willingham, 2002)
Bone (Jeff Smith, 1991)
Scott Pilgrim (Bryan Lee O’Malley, 2004)
Sin City (Frank Miller, 1991)
Blankets (Craig Thompson, 2003)
Ghost World (Daniel Clowes, 1998)
What do you think? Leave a comment.