Picture this: You walk into your favorite bookstore. The smell of books is in the air. Numerous readers are hunkered down in chairs. Approaching a shelf, you take down a volume and begin thumbing the pages. It's a book that you've heard about; people are reading it, and critics in the mainstream and alternative press are praising the author. Standing there, casually reading, you're able to make significant inroads. By the time you decide to buy the book, you've already been introduced to the main characters and some of the situations in their lives. You feel as if you know them and understand their world. You have insights into their dreams and insecurities. You've seen how they carry themselves, their body language when they interact with others. You know how they dress, and what they do when they're not talking. In five minutes of reading, you have a more vivid picture of the characters than you usually have after spending hours reading a typical book.
It would be nice if we could just call them "illustrated fiction," because the name "graphic novel" doesn't do these books justice. What it took the entire last paragraph to describe, a good graphic novel could have detailed in a single panel.
So what are these strange books that contain so much information without sacrificing any of the literary qualities we read books to enjoy? At the basic level, a graphic novel is a story -- sometimes long, sometimes short -- that is told in pictures, either with or without the aid of words.
Like a comic book? Yes. And no. Put aside any ideas of over-muscled men in tight-fitting, colorful costumes (although they occasionally appear in graphic novels as well). And some of the better graphic novels can be most easily found at stores like Merlyn's or the Comic Book Shop. Comic books usually have main characters that express archetypes -- Superman's do-gooder strongman or Spiderman's accidental hero struggling with responsibilities. These characters rarely change, although they might reveal nuances over time. The characters in a graphic novel, however, are usually defiantly individual, and their personalities and motivations may change drastically over the course of a few pages. Their struggles are also different. Instead of apocalyptic, cosmic encounters, the characters in a graphic novel often have the problems that an ordinary person might have, but they're often enlarged by the comic book format to mutant proportions.
Alex Robinson is the author of Box Office Poison, a graphic novel that details the lives of a (mostly) twentysomething cast of characters as they lead lives full of paying rent and working at jobs they hate. "I like character-driven stories about people and relationships," Robinson explains. "I grew up reading superhero comics, and the parts I became more interested in were not the fighting and cosmic clashes, but the soap opera elements. My comic is like X-Men without superpowers. Or Archie with cursing and nudity."
More Than Picture Books
Both traditional books and graphic novels achieve greater impact by combining text with images -- a natural pairing. Visual representations are one of the oldest forms of written communication -- as far as anyone can tell, the first words were pictures, and they've historically been used to enhance text. Manuscripts that were copied by hand before the invention of he printing press were often decorated by the monks doing the copying, partially to relieve the boredom and partially to reflect and enhance the words in a world where written language was not a common form of communication. As the means of mass-producing texts evolved, pictures broke up the endless streams of words and took some of the pressure off the writer. This was especially useful in explaining new scientific phenomena for which there was often a lack of accurate language. Readers could simply look at the illustration to understand what was being explained. And of course, pictures served fiction writers as well. Lewis Carroll, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, refers readers to Sir John Tenniel's illustrations if they want to know what a character looks like.
But graphic novels are more than novels with pictures. The images used in graphic novels are central to the author's craft. It's nothing new to be told in a book what a character is thinking and feeling. But it's something else entirely to see what they look like when they're thinking and feeling it. Daniel Clowes, author of the comic book Eightball, and the graphic novel Ghost World, is a master at this. His characters often languish in some sort of personal discomfort, their bodies elaborating on the obsessions and insecurities that their thoughts and words reveal. An author could take pages to detail this over the course of a book. Graphic novelists don't even have to put the plot on hold; they just draw the information into the main story.
Craig Thompson's novel Blankets tells the story of a young man growing up in a repressive environment and falling in love for the first time. His illustrations, with their backgrounds that fade to white, capture the way that the world seems to disappear when you are happiest. They also show -- graphically -- how someone you love looks different at different times, and may remind you of still other people in your life.
"The Raina character," Thompson explains of his main character's girlfriend, "is a hybrid of two people -- one who I was longing for at the time, and one who was transposed on top of this past high school relationship that I had. She's a morphing of the two girls, and visually she was, too. I remember in my earliest sketchbook, I was trying to pin down a likeness, and I couldn't come up with a satisfactory likeness and had to settle for an emotional drawing. Over time your images of people disappear -- even people you're really close to. You can't access the visual memory of them, but there are emotional cues that are always there."
It's not just personalities and emotional cues that are enhanced by the images in graphic novels. There is no language that can describe the stuff that J. Backderf had to haul as a garbage man. But his illustrated novel Trashed depicts it perfectly. And when characters in Box Office Poison interact, you learn about their lives through their wardrobe and the details of their environment.
"When I'm just sort of spending time on each page -- eight hours or so -- I have to do things to keep myself interested in it," Alex Robinson explains about the process of adding those details. "It's not even a conscious thing about what I could do to convey information about a character. But I just think that if he's wearing a T-shirt, I should make it something that the character would really wear."
When Words Aren't Enough
Authors of graphic novels are also able to use the blending of words and images -- often unreal images -- to tackle subjects too difficult or abstract for standard prose. The first artist to have the term "graphic novel" applied to one of his books was Will Eisner, whose 1978 A Contract With God married the thematic complexity of spiritual relationships with the visual accessibility of comic books. And when Art Spiegelman wrote his Holocaust memoir Maus, a large number of readers discovered the power inherent in the genre. Not only was Maus potent and heartfelt, but with his use of cartoon animals, Spiegelman was able to bring readers uncomfortably close to an otherwise unimaginable topic.
Seattle-based artist Jim Woodring uses a similar technique to dig under the psyche of his character Frank, the star of The Frank Book. "When I first started the strip, I wanted to make it as otherworldly as possible. Frank is a generic anthropomorph -- just a cartoon. Not a mouse or a cat. I didn't want people to tell when or where it was happening, and in the first few drafts I had him speaking, but I couldn't find an idiom that didn't place him. I tried to avoid any hint of topicality."
Woodring found that visuals, more than words, conveyed Frank's anxiety-riddled, hallucinatory adventures. "It's not hard to tell complicated stories without words. It would be harder if I were doing a story about a man living in an American city. The whole point of a story like that is for the reader to identify with what is going on. My stories deal with emotions and catalytic events and things unfolding. They have nothing to do with something that can be named. There are a lot of things that happen that we don't have names for. The closest we get are terms like 'd & eacute;j & agrave; vu.' I try to get things that we don't have words for in the stories."
What readers are discovering is that something that used to be considered a fluffy piece of pop culture has been taken up by artists and turned into something more serious. And the results have been popular at the bookstore. The traditional comic book industry is declining, and standard fiction sales have plateaued. But bookstores -- particularly large chains that can track national sales -- report strong growth in the field of graphic novels.
One of the reasons for this is the popularity of Japanese manga. Manga are paperback graphic novels, often in black and white, and they populate bookstores and newsstands much as trade paperbacks do in America. Their popularity has not only brought the work of some of Japan's most interesting artists to American readers, but it's also given authors a niche to fill in bookstore shelves. Instead of dealing in "comic books," bookstores can post a sign labeled "graphic novels" to identify the section for manga. This gives room for the books of American authors looking to distribute their more challenging works.
"The mainstream comic industry is in the sewer, and my wing -- the alternative comics division -- is foundering," Woodring explains. "But now more than ever, graphic novels are going into bookstores. Fantagraphics [a major publisher of alternative comics and graphic novels] has a deal with Norton -- a mainstream book distributor -- and now their books are going into bookstores that way. Books are a much better deal for an artist than a comic book. Comic books are flimsy, and sold in comic book shops and left out for only a few weeks. But if they're on bookshelves, they're there forever, and it conveys a greater sense of dignity. It encourages people to take them seriously."