The Illustrated

9 10 2009

One of the few things that I remember about my grandfather was the fact that he did not like comic books. I remember this because, even though he died when I was six, my earliest aspiration was to be an illustrator. I used to wonder whether or not he would have enjoyed a comic book that I produced and was always certain that the medium could be more than people usually gave it credit. It’s therefore a curious fact that, with very few and scarce exceptions, I never actually spent my time reading comics. I cannot say precisely why that was, except that I may have inherited the very prejudice that I was so certain was unfounded. Comics are frivolous. Comics are lurid. Comics, by providing illustrations, promote laziness. Comics are for children; adults read books.

While each of the above points has a basis in reality, those who criticise the medium in such terms take little notice of the fact that cinema might be described in the same way. Indeed, there was no shortage of people who eschewed films in their early days for precisely the same reason, and we might therefore hope for a corresponding increase in the number of those who are prepared to broaden their definition of literature today. In this regard, I think it worthwhile to draw a clear distinction. “Comic books”: a phrase that is generally intended with a mildly pejorative nuance, is a term best suited to describe panelled gags. “Graphic novels”, on the other hand, should be reserved for those texts that focus on the development of a broad plot, the psychological intricacies of its various characters and the visual effectiveness of its presentation. Unlike a series of panels that intends to establish a punchline, graphic novels present material that differs only from a novel in its presentation.

A quick glance at Wikipedia’s discussion of the term is enough to indicate that the issue is not without controversy. Without intending to sound pompous, it is obvious that there is a stark qualitative difference between early issues of Batman and the material now published by Vertigo: an imprint of DC Comics that targets older audiences. Indeed, even some of the later Batman issues (particularly those that focus on the rogues gallery, like Arkham Asylum, The Killing Joke and Brian Azzarello’s incredible Joker) are so different to their earlier manifestations that comparison can only be made on the most superficial grounds.

My comics shelf is slowly growing. It features a few editions from my childhood (notably Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics), as well as a growing collection of graphic novels – mostly published by Vertigo. My first comic experience, as an adult, was with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I appreciated the film for what it was, but knew that I was missing something, and bought the book. Watchmen is almost perversely aware of being a comic book. It features a superhero theme that it subverts by focusing on the psychological peculiarities of its heroes. What sort of individual dresses in tights, wears a gimpish mask, and runs out to fight bad guys? Sexual perverts, mainly, and fascists. This is the premise of Alan Moore’s creation, and a glimpse at other Moore creations (V For Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen above all) show that he is particularly concerned with alternate dystopian realities that provide him with an opportunity to critique present-day society.

Would I have expected such social commentary from the early issues of Superman or The Green Lantern? I do not think so, and it would seem as though the medium itself has come of age around (approximately) the same time that I did. Perhaps it was necessary for it to be ridiculed by others in order that it might ridicule itself, and then move from there to subvert itself and, ultimately, upset all expectations of what it was supposed to be. If the last twenty years of graphic novels have taught us anything it’s that “comics” is a medium and not a genre.

*

On a more personal note, I have recently started a crime-noir series (Brian Azzarello, 100 Bullets), a cyber-punk series (Warrin Ellis, Transmetropolitan) and a fantasy series (Neil Gaiman, The Sandman). I am also presently reading the first edition of Bill Willingham’s Fables and am looking forward to getting my hands on Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

Yes yes, and I’m also working on my thesis. Get off my back.

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3 responses

10 10 2009
Thomas Anderson

I’d recommend Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and Daredevil: Born Again, also by Frank Miller

10 11 2009
Stuart

Interesting that you refer to Fungus The Bogeyman as being from your childhood. I discovered it when I was at uni and it’s been a favorite ever since. I managed to transmit an appreciation of it to my kids when they were in their teens. I think it’s more adult than child humor.

10 11 2009
Simon Holloway

I agree! My grandmother bought it for me (much to my mother’s consternation) when I was in primary school and, while I enjoyed it then, I love it now. Like the works of Shaun Tan, an Australian illustrator, it is one of those books that works for children and thoroughly works for adults. Very funny, very provocative, and very charming.

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