History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 October 2007

Graphic Novels

Let’s start right off by clarifying the term. Graphic novels are also known as comic books. They are not inherently erotic (though sometimes the content may be). In fact, they cover the spectrum from heavy historical memoir (MAUS by Art Speigleman and BAREFOOT GEN by Keiji Nakazawa) to the super hero comics we all know but so few of us have read lately.

Thanks to the irrepressible and creative Robin Truslow (public relations relations coordinator at our fabulous library) I have been participating in a series on graphic novels given by Dr. Phillip Troutman from The George Washington University where he is assistant professor of writing. The class reminds me of a college seminar, a small group intent on sharing ideas and listening. One of my favorite things.

As are graphic novels. The genre came to my attention when a graphic novel was a finalist in the Young People’s category of the National Book Award. It took me weeks to find a copy of AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang. I read it in one long day and was hooked.

The graphic novel combines words and drawings, enabling the creator to tell his story in an entirely different way from the written word or from a purely pictorial format. The combination of writing and drawing inform each other, giving the story a depth which will surprise the novice reader.

Don’t take my word for it. Give it a try. While you are at it, find a copy of Scott McCloud's, UNDERSTANDING COMICS. This amazing book will take you into the hitherto unexplored and (in my case) unimagined depths of graphic novels. It is not a quick read. It is not an easy read. But it is worth the effort. Here is an example: McCloud spends pages explaining the cartoon as the idea of form. At the end of the discussion he asks if there is any more iconic form of a human face than the smiley face we all know [too] well? Just as I am shaking my head and thinking impossible, McCloud, with an interactive panel, demonstrates to me that “words are the ultimate abstraction.” (Pam I think you would love this book – when’s your birthday?)

What does this have to do with research? The origins of the graphic novel are lost in history. Here are a few examples: The Bayeux Tapestry -- that's a small sample of it at the right, William Hogarth's series of paintings, A HARLOTS PROGRESS (1731) though short in the number of "panels" has all the elements of a graphic novel, some of Rowlandson's work in the early nineteenth century especially the Dr. Syntax series. I would suggest that Diana Sperling’s MRS. HURST DANCING (1812-1823) would qualify as well.

I so wish that someone would do a graphic novel of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Are you familiar with graphic novels? Do you have any you can add to my "must read" list? Are you willing to give it a try?

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Mary! I don't know of anyone who has done Pride & Prejudice but Gothic Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 14 has a version of Northanger Abbey and a story by Ann Radcliffe, which you can order from Amazon.com. And there's a gorgeous graphic novel version of Wuthering Heights that you can order from Amazon.co.uk. As for other graphic novels, Neil Gaiman is wonderful and also Fables by Bill Williamson, which is a retelling of several classic fairytales.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Oh, and I actually read a great graphic novel about Madeleine Smith when I wrote a post about her on my blog.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks Elizabeth -- sounds like you should have written this post. I will be sure to check out the Northanger Abbey graphic novel as that is one of my favorites by Austen. Just so funny.

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read graphic novels all the time, and I love them. I tend to read the English-translated Japanese graphic novels, manga, which are usually longer than the American-styled graphic novel. In fact, they are usually about novella-length. I know some (most) people think they're just comic books, and therefore shouldn't be read by adults, but I see it as another way to tell a story.

I haven't read many American graphic novels because the ones that are popular tend to be violent, like Sin City, Maus, 30 Days of Night, etc. Neil Gaiman is good, like Elizabeth said... I'm always willing to try something new.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Oh Belinda, do try American Born Chinese and also Cancer Vixen which is the memoir of a NYC cartoonist who fought breast cancer and won. There is so much more to it than that (including romance).

At our initial meeting Professor Troutman detailed the types of graphic novels that come from Japan, targeted for age and gender and hugely popular. Most anime has come from manga -- which seems a logical move even if the subject matter is anything but. The anime (film) Spirited Away was one of the strangest movies I have ever seen.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Thanks for the post, Mary. I wasn't familiar with the concept of a graphic novel, but I really, really think I'd like them.

My duagher is Chines and I'll be sure and pick up "American Born in Chinese." ...going to Amazon now!

9:44 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I discovered graphic novels through MAUS, when it was first published; at the time I was married to a man who was the son of Holocaust survivors.

Then, when I was researching THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY, I came across Eric Shanower's AGE OF BRONZE (the first in a series, evidently), which offered an interesting storytelling perspective of the age-old legends swirling around the Trojan War, but even more importantly, led me to the Friends of Troy, which is a nonprofit group that helds fund the ongoing excavations there. So much has been unearthed there (literally as well as historically, archaeologically, and culturally) since 1994 that we know a lot more than previous generations ever did -- such as, yes, Virginia, there really was a Trojan War that took place at a certain time, and every year, more evidence is discovered to prove the legend a reality

10:07 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I am thinking that graphic novels appeal to those of us who are visual -- my husband has learned that whenever he is undertaking some remodeling project he does his best to show me what it will look like -- so he doesn't get that disappointed "oh." when he is finished. Would you say that you are a visual person, Amanda?

I must look into the series you mentioned. Amazing how much there is out there that is just waiting to be discovered -- in so many ways

10:18 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I thought that Cancer Vixen was incredibly powerful. And Alan Moore's From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman which was so much better than the movie. I think my love of graphic novels comes from reading Nancy Drew which always had those illustrations in the books. I certainly wouldn't say that I was particularly visual but I love art particularly the impressionists and the pre-Raphaelites. I once did a scavenger hunt at the Met, and all the women had a moment in front of Madame X by Sargent.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I am very definitely a visual person. Actually, I tend to respond to, and remember all the sensual stimuli -- sight, sound, touch, scent, and taste.
And a visual image of something will stick in my mind forever. I'm also one of those people who CANNOT learn how to do a thing, especially something technical (unless it's cooking) from a book or manual. If someone SHOWS me how to do something, I can pick it up much more quickly. Even (or especially) if it's a computer-related thing. You know, if you press this button, then you'll get this screen, and then you ... etc. Even the manuals where they show you the screen you'll get are far less use to me than a hands-on lesson.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mary, I loved Spirited Away. It was strange, but it touched me in a way I still haven't been able to explain. I'll definitely try out Cancer Vixen and American Born Chinese, thanks for the suggestions!

11:58 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

MAUS is an absolute must-read, I think. Art Spiegelman's animal-toon retelling story of his parents' holocaust experience (Nazis are cats, Jews mice, etc) is astonishing.

And I'll always be grateful to Spiegelman for helping us talk about the holocaust with our son, who also read MAUS at age 12 or so. There were things we were able to share and learn that we probably couldn't have done any other way, Speigelman had ways of facing human suffering that were so useful, so unsentimental, compassionate... so un-cheap about what suffering does to people.

MAUS is really important historical art, imo. I don't know why the wit and control of the graphic novel form worked so perfectly there, but I can only be awestruck and thankful that it did.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

I second Amanda's recommendation of AGE OF BRONZE. I also enjoyed PERSEPOLIS, by Marjane Satrapi, which isn't a novel as such but a memoir in graphic form about the authors childhood and adolescence in Iran in the 1970's and '80's.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I tend to be exactly that way too, Amanda-- give me a demo and I have it.

And I want to do a scavenger hunt at the Metroppolitan Museum of Art -- what fun!

7:39 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Susan, I have Persepolis and will now move it to the top of my TVR stack.

Pam, that was so beautifully said -- Maus is unsentimental and compassionate -- something that is not easy to accomplish. Have you ever heard Spiegelman speak? Apparently he is very entertaining and wise -- another combo you do not see very often.

5:38 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I actually went on a date with a guy who's trying to turn Maus into a musical. He had a very interesting take on it, although he had yet to get the rights to the material. Alas, no second date, otherwise, I'd tell you how it was progressing!

5:58 AM  

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