Tuesday Artist Date: The good and bad of graphic novels

Litquake logo

A week of literary mayhem!

On Saturday I attended a short presentation on graphic novels, entitled “Illustrated Works: A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, More or Less.” It was one event in the weeklong literary festival that is San Francisco’s Litquake. For about an hour I sat in a darkened little theater and listened to Belle Yang, Eric Drooker, Lisa Brown, and two students in the Stanford Graphic Novel Project discuss and present some of their works. I enjoyed all the individual presentations, which were by turns funny and passionate (and included a surprising number of historical photos). But I’d gone to the event hoping to get some larger message about the state of graphic novel-dom we’re in, and that’s not what I got. I guess the vague title “Illustrated Works” should have tipped me off.

Understanding Comics cover

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

One of the best things about working on graphic novels today is that they are still young. Sequential art (comics) has been around forever — really forever, if you’ve read Scott McCloud, who dates its ancestry back to ancient manuscripts — but the graphic novel as a format is only just becoming famous. This is good for us would-be creators, but the relative newness of the medium is also a problem: people don’t know what to do with it. When I first started taking class with Nunzio, he impressed upon us that comics are not a genre, they are a medium. This is absolutely true. There are traditional genres with which graphic novels are often associated; daily newspaper strips (responsible for placing graphic novels in the “humor” section of many libraries and bookstores) and superhero comics spring instantly to mind. But the form has moved far beyond that, and that confuses people. What is the link between Peanuts, Persepolis, Dykes To Watch Out For, and the cartoons in The New Yorker? Not much — just that they’re all words put together with pictures. This isn’t sufficient reason to lump them all together. Look at the title of the Litquake event: “Illustrated Works.” Can you imagine going to an entertainment or a performance art festival, and seeing a panel called simply “Movies”? It would never happen — and that’s because movies have been in our consciousness long enough that we know how to “read” them. Even the least sophisticated of consumers can recognize that there are myriad different types of movies, from campy cult classics to experimental art films to Disney princess cartoons. No one would dream of putting on an hourlong talk just on “movies” without breaking it down thematically by style or content or creator. But graphic novels haven’t yet reached that level of public consciousness, and whenever I think of this it drives me a little bit crazy.

We still tend to talk about “graphic novels” as if they are a single thing. “Oh, I love graphic novels!” someone will say, but then it’ll turn out they only read manga or Marvel or serious stuff like Maus — all of which have their own language and their own culture, and are as different from each other as movies are from each other. Or someone will tell me, “I never read graphic novels because I don’t ‘get’ them,” and I’ll start naming titles because it’s just unfair to make that declaration without having read examples from across the spectrum. But everyone does this, because right now there simply is no other way to talk about the format. Lately I have been stumbling over the same problem when talking about my new project. I call it “a graphic novel of my family history” because that seems to be the quickest way to convey the concept, but I dislike that the word “novel” — which implies fiction — is involved in describing a very serious, personal, nonfiction piece of work. But as yet I don’t know what else to call it.

It’s my theory that this still-nascent understanding of the medium is the reason there are so many shoddy graphic novels out there (something I’ve griped about before). I suspect this was an issue in early films as well, though that’s a subject about which I know very little (maybe someone can enlighten me? Jason, I’m looking at you). I suspect early filmmakers, and filmgoers, were so enamored of this exciting new medium that they  turned out a bunch of weird, wacky, or just plain bad stuff, because they hadn’t seen enough yet to figure out what it was — and what it could be. It is my fervent hope that as the medium takes off, as it seems to be doing, the less-remarkable works will stop getting as much praise as they’re getting, better work will be produced, and the best work will take center stage. (I kind of think this is happening right now with blogs. But then, we all know what happened to movies and Hollywood…!)

Pika-Don cover

Stanford Graphic Novel Project

The Stanford Graphic Novel Project was my favorite presentation of the panel for this very reason. In the most recent project, called Pika-Don, twenty undergrads came together under the guidance of three faculty mentors to create — in the span of one semester — a nonfiction graphic novel about a survivor of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. That is an amazing feat, but primarily I’m delighted just to know this project exists, because in putting together such a book, the mentors and students must be asking exactly the kinds of questions I wish more people would ask about graphic novels: What are they? What’s currently out there? What’s their potential and how can we push the boundaries? How can writers, artists, and readers work together to move the creative process into places it hasn’t gone before? And, very important (and touched on by the students at the presentation), how can our work have an impact in the world?

As I prepare to create my own graphic novel, all these questions are very much in my mind. I said in my previous entry on the topic that I take this project very seriously, and I consider I have a great responsibility in tackling this subject matter in this format. I guess I should just come out and say here that I don’t just want to write any graphic novel, I want to write the graphic novel as far as my own standards are concerned. And that will be quite weighty enough!