Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Graphic Novel

Ah December, a time when the calendars are filled with obligations and gatherings of every sort, families and friends make time to make and consume traditional foods, treats and treasures. It is also the time of year when our little bookgroup gathers for the last time to discuss the current selection and then review our year. We make our cases for book of the year and inevitably our least favorite book also emerges.

This is not that blog post. You will have to wait for that one because our final selection(s) were so unique and wonderful that they get their own posting.

In a departure from our normal novel or non-fiction book Amy suggested we read a graphic novel (or 3) and discuss the merits of the genre and the books themselves. Selecting 3-4 books would be laughable but we were assured that the graphic novel is generally a faster read than word based books. For the record, there are plenty of words in a graphic novel and it is considered reading. So there.

Graphic novels are not comic books even though the story is told with both cartoon like drawings and narrative. Wikipedia (the source of all information be it true or not) describes graphic novels as a “narrative work in which the story is conveyed to the reader using the comics form.” “ Graphic novels are typically bound in longer and more durable formats than familiar comic magazines. The term graphic novel is sometimes used to disassociate with the works from the juvenile or humorous connotations of the terms comics and comic book, implying the work is more serious, mature or literary. “ (end of Wikipedia quoting.)

We selected three different novels to give us a deeper view into the medium than we might obtain from a single selection. We read:

Maus I : A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Blankets, Craig Thompson

Each told a widely different type of story. Maus I & II (sold as a set or in a single volume) tell the story of a young man who is drawing out from his father the experiences of the holocaust that he and his mother endured. Graphically, Jewish people are mice, the Nazi’s are cats (get it, cat & mouse) and other nationalities are represented as other animals (Polish are Pigs and so on). The subject matter does not shy away from the horrors of what one group of people can inflict on another. The graphic novel format allows for the portrayal of certain things that may be harder to explain in words only. For example, as the father is telling his story he is physically represented as a mouse, but when the story is in “present day” and the son is talking with his father the son is drawn as a person wearing mouse mask. It is a visual way of saying that the son doesn’t feel “as Jewish” and as connected to his heritage as someone who had those experiences. It is subtle and yet speaks volumes.

The Complete Persepolis is another non-fiction telling of a different family dealing with political change and oppression. Marjane describes her upbringing in Iran before and during the Iranian revolution. Her parents and family were not in favor of the new regime and raised Marjane to be an independent thinker. She describes the changes in the schools, church and eventually everywhere as the country she and her parents love is altered by the Shah’s and Ayatollah Khomeini’s influences. She is at one point sent away to live with family in Austria who have no understanding of the situation and although she was raised to be liberal and rebel against the requirements of the regime she does not thrive in a secular world. Eventually she returns to Iran and again struggles to balance the incongruent ideals of Iran and Europe. Interestingly, Marjane is not concerned with presenting a sympathetic and likeable image of herself and in doing so lends credibility and complexity to a simple way of portraying a challenging topic that many of us know little about.

Lastly, Blankets is the story of a high school boy who falls in love. This unflinching tale is remarkable in its youthful outlook on what love is and how it changes you and how it feels when it dies. While this book doesn’t have the backdrop of world altering war and revolution it is powerful and engaging. It is not at all a trite story and touches on complicated familial dynamics, substance, child and even sexual abuse.

It would be safe to say that as a group we thoroughly enjoyed these books. We enjoyed the reading of them and discussing the differences and similarities. Our main complaint was that the graphic novel is a genre that is easily devoured and these novels were hard to savor. I finished Maus I on a 90 minute flight and Persepolis in a 90minute flight plus 15 minutes into the return flight. (thus leaving me with only the Alaska Air in-flight magazine to read – ICK) . We loved what the graphic images were able to add to the story and the tone of the books. We liked how much detail we were able to gather from such a ‘simple’ medium. We also marveled over the editing process that must occur to bring a graphic novel to life. We wondered how much of a story is left out because it isn’t necessary or if we all fill in the same details when the canvas is left blank.

We tried to vote on which of the three stories we liked the best and we could not land on a solid favorite. We liked them all and were split as to which we thought was the best. We decided (as if anyone is listening) that we approve of the genre and it has a place in the literary world.