catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16


Unlikely places

I was making my list and checking it twice for Christmas 2007.  Handmade, uniquely meaningful, fair trade, second hand—those are the general rules for gift-giving within and from our household.  That particular year, however, I had one brand new gift in mind: two graphic novels for my husband.  He was eager to dive into the genre and I wanted to start him off with Blankets by Craig Thompson and Curses by Kevin Huizenga.

In only a few months, we’ve both discovered just the very tip of the monstrous iceberg that is graphic novel culture.  Admittedly, graphic novels have become a bit trendy among the students with whom we work, but that fact hasn’t diminished the power of their discovery for me.  My experiences with the books I’ve tackled so far seem to have little to do with the color Sunday comics I used to devour as a kid, even though many of the illustrations are similar in style.  Even the more artistically advanced Sunday comic artists wouldn’t touch issues like sexuality, death, molestation, torture and massacre with more than the lightest brush.  A PG-rating rules their content, and understandably so.

This isn’t to say that all graphic novels are intensely, well, graphic, but they tend to demand a certain level of maturity and wisdom that an average reader wouldn’t expect from comics.  Take Fun Home, for example, a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel in which the author wrestles with the event of her father’s apparent suicide and contemplates her role in his life and death.  Bechdel is drawing a story on a number of levels, relying on family history, personal memory, elaborate metaphor and dense literary references to create a picture of heartbreaking uncertainty.

So what is it about the comic genre that draws people, somewhat ironically, into such somber personal reflection?  I think the answer to that question is different for each participant, whether writer, illustrator or reader.  For some, it’s the desire to soften a particularly difficult experience.  For others, it’s the juxtaposition of an idea’s weightiness with the lightness of a simple image.  Others simply appreciate the wide-ranging possibilities of the art form.  Perhaps some even have a sense of being called to such a form.  What many of these books seem to have in common is that, beyond just making Sunday morning readers chuckle, they provoke a deep realization of the paradox soup we’re swimming in.  Though we may long for the simple black and white world of clean lines and intuitive narrative progression and G-rated life and a predictable laugh at the end of each section, reality is so much more complex.  Graphic novels can achieve this realization not through lengthy diatribes, but through the simplest of images.  Sometimes maybe we do need someone to literally draw us a picture to help us understand or remember.

I wonder if someday we’ll see the walls of mainstream bookstores lined with cheesy romance graphic novels that minimize suffering in favor of a vanilla happy ending, but for now, the graphic novel genre (and particularly graphic memoir) is unique to a peculiar subculture, a visual and literary window into broken lives and stories.  We do well to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

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