Can I confess something? I hate art galleries.
My parents are both art-lovers, but through all those weekends of exhibition room benches and gift shop erasers, my visual appreciation remained stunted. I can look at an absolutely out-of-this-world sunset, be truly moved by it, and even take a thoughtful photograph of it – all in about two seconds. Then I’m done. I’ve never found how to linger over an image that I find beautiful or striking, which is why I spent childhood car journeys not admiring the scenery, but with my nose in one or more books.
Fortunately for me, someone has come up with a way to force readers to look at pictures. They’re called graphic novels, and I love them. I truly believe that everyone should read them. Yet I’m not obsessed with superheroes, a small child who loves fart jokes, or a basement-lurker.
This is how graphic novels are treated in the UK – as a hyper-niche, ultra-formulaic and never-ending series, normally stuck on the end of SFF/Horror/Manga in Waterstones. But they can be about anything under the sun, fiction or non-fiction.They can be human rights campaigning material, biographies of anyone from painters to physicists, a visual adaptation of an award-winning literary novelist, or an epic folk-tale romance. Elsewhere in this series of posts I’ve mentioned how certain rules are common in most types of “genre fiction”. But there’s no single narrative or thematic tradition that ties together all graphic novels, because they aren’t a genre – they’re a medium. (And if you click through some of the links in this post, you’ll see how stylistically diverse they are, too.) They tell a story through a combination of words and pictures. That’s all.
Graphic novels are also often considered low-brow or childlike, as if they’re only for those who can’t or won’t read something without pictures. But the pioneering nation behind the modern graphic novel? That ultimate culture snob, France. The French understand that graphic literature is an art form like any other, and that it can do things like no other. To put it simply, the mix of words and images opens up new ways of reading a story.
Here’s a parallel you might recognise: I don’t know about you, but I found reading the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a strange and unfulfilling experience – because theatre is not meant to be read. However intricately crafted and richly expressive the text is, it’s just not a play without the music, the staging, the acting, the costumes. Reading a graphic novel is a different experience from reading a regular novel, or biography, or history. Ideas and emotions are communicated on a different level – more intimate, more visceral, more instinctive. There’s more space for expression, and that means their message is often deeper and richer.
Graphic novels are particularly suited to telling certain kinds of story, and I especially like ones that tell true stories. For those (the vast majority of readers) who – understandably – can’t sit through traditional non-fiction, but want to learn about the world, this is the ideal solution. Graphic travel diaries, memoirs and reportage allow you to discover places through not just the voice, but also the eyes, of someone who’s been there. And because you’re proceeding frame by frame, probably with narration or dialogue, you’re actually given twice as long to take it all in. Both of the best-known modern graphic novels are non-fiction. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is an autobiography of lost identity, the immigrant experience and a feisty little girl in post-revolution Iran; Maus is the survival story of the author’s Polish Jewish father, in which Art Spiegelman famously portrays the Poles as pigs, the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice. They are two of the greatest books of the last thirty-odd years.
Maus and Persepolis have deservedly reached a global audience. But why do most people stop there? I’m hoping to persuade you that the whole world of graphic novels is an emotionally rewarding, deeply thought-provoking and highly enjoyable reading experience, and you’re missing out if you’re not exploring them. Here are just three examples, of three different types of graphic literature.
HISTORY-AUTOBIOGRAPHY: The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf
Occasionally, an outstanding graphic novelist will get attention from the mainstream books industry. For the broadsheets and the bookshop windows, Riad Sattouf is the new kid on the block. A half-French, half-Syrian cartoonist and film director, his autobiography explores a childhood in Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad Snr’s Syria, through the eyes of a wide-eyed blond boy born in Paris. Like all good graphic novelists, and in the tradition of Persepolis, Sattouf casts a wry, self-mocking eye upon his younger self, but uses it to probe not only his emotional development and the relationship between his culture-clashing parents, but also the nature of Cold War Arab societies and how these evolved into today’s Middle East. Don’t be fooled by the innocent simplicity of the drawing style – this is a sharp look at the human impossibility of political ideas, and the daily pain of human co-existence. And it’s all pretty adorable.
Sattouf’s perspective is fascinating and valuable for two reasons. Firstly, he is relating his own discovery of the Arab world from the outside – no one born in the Middle East could explain Arabic pronunciation so well to a Western audience. Secondly, he does what I look for in all my graphic novels: he takes me somewhere I’ve never been. In this case, it’s the Syria that existed before the civil war pushed it into our consciousness. It’s the people who saved for a washing machine, the children who bullied each other, the shops and roads and TV shows that were the fabric of an everyday life seldom imagined by observers of today’s catastrophe. Just as Marjane Satrapi humanises the women behind Iran’s niqabs and burqas (many of them veiled against their will after the Revolution), Sattouf gives a meaning to “Syrians” that is not “rebels”, “soldiers”, “terrorists” or “refugees” – not exceptional, but ordinary, even under a dictatorship.
If this is the kind of story you’re looking for in your graphic novels, you might also want to check out Zeina Abirached. A Lebanese illustrator who grew up in war-torn Beirut, her recollection of that experience, A Game for Swallows, was the first graphic novel to be sponsored for English translation by PEN International. Strife in Lebanon has been an accepted fact in the West for as long as I can remember – news of bombings barely registers – but the Lebanese Civil War actually ended before I was born. It is not normal for people to live in constant fear and insecurity, “even” in a Middle Eastern country like Syria or Lebanon. That is the most important thing that graphic novels have taught me. Abirached also taught me to consider the full reality of such catastrophes – she exposes the aching boredom of life in a war zone through her own story, confined to the walls of her apartment building and peopled solely by its other inhabitants.
GRAPHIC JOURNALISM: Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco
Many of the best Middle Eastern graphic novelists have been French-educated, and they have often aimed specifically to help Western audiences understand their experiences. But others, outsiders, have also taken this approach, coming into and bringing back stories from parts of the world too often overlooked, or oversimplified.
Maltese-American Joe Sacco is essentially the founding father of graphic journalism. His on-the-ground reportage pursues the fundamental truth behind world events, by seeking out and then sketching the human stories behind them. During the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, he spent two years visiting and living in Goražde, a Muslim-majority town in the otherwise Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, cut off from the outside world and only accessible by UN convoys. This besieged community – starving, terrorised, and used as pawns by international negotiators trading territory for peace – would likely have been forgotten by history if not for Safe Area Goražde. Knowing about post-Yugoslavia’s terrible ethnic wars couldn’t prepare me for the testimonies of suffering Sacco gathered and drew. One section has particularly stayed with me, in which the townspeople flee into the woods under fire from Serb militias – first running, then crawling as they are shot, then dragging themselves as they’re shot again, leaving family members behind in an hour-long torment that I can scarcely imagine – but have been forced to witness and remember.
Sabina, speech bubble: “Do they know about Goražde in America?”
Yes, I lied.
But Safe Area Goražde is sobering – not depressing. The residents of Goražde as presented by Sacco are not just victims, but real people. He drinks with them, sings with them, jokes with them – yes, about the war – and makes gentle fun of the “Silly Girls” who pine over their deadweight boyfriends and beg him to bring back genuine Levis from Sarajevo. And ultimately, the picture Sacco paints is uplifting and hopeful – one of enduring dignity and honour, of refusal to be dehumanised by atrocity. The section “Horrifying Home Videos” takes on a hysterical tone that puts you exactly in front of the footage in question (“Half her face sliced off! An eyeball dangling on her cheek!”). Yet when Edin, Sacco’s friend, is asked why he thinks his Serb neighbours, with whom he used to celebrate Christmas each year, have burned down his house, he does not deliver a tirade against the evil Serbs – he simply replies, “I don’t know. I would like to ask them.”
The boredom of war is here, too – Sacco allows us a rare glimpse of his own distress as he recounts the endless demands on his knowledge of the outside world, from the rules of basketball to the plot of Pulp Fiction – a cultural background that we take for granted, but which saves the people of Goražde from the sole experience of their horror. Sacco draws himself as a subtle caricature, more cartoonish than the Bosnians he captures; you can’t see his eyes behind his glasses. It’s an important message of Safe Area Goražde – this is not the story of a Westerner coming into a war zone and struggling to cope with what he finds, or to win a place among the traumatised locals. He is there to give them a voice, often allowing their memories and opinions to take over the narration.
So on one side, Riad Sattouf offers a window onto a world we normally see through a skewed media lens. On the other, Joe Sacco takes us inside places that simply aren’t accessible to us, or our media, at all. For similar graphic revelations, try Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian animator who had to relocate to North Korea, of all places, and has drawn us the world’s most secretive state; or Picture a Favela by Brazilian photographer André Diniz, who grew up and still lives in one of the world’s most dangerous slums.
GRAPHIC MEMOIR: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Some of the best graphic novels can feel quite close to home, though. Western novelists have produced some superb graphic memoirs. Fun Home, a groundbreaking piece of literature, is one of my favourite books of all time – yes, it’s up there with Philip Pullman et al. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.
You might have heard of Alison Bechdel, even if you don’t know it. She invented the Bechdel test, which checks if a movie is bowing to – and therefore helping to perpetuate – gender bias. It goes like this: does the plot of the movie feature a single scene in which two female characters talk to each other, about something other than a male character? It doesn’t sound that hard an ask, but the monitoring website set up in the test’s honour shows that only 57.7% of films currently listed in its giant, constantly updating database would pass. Film critics have pointed out that a similar proportion of nominees for Best Picture at the Oscars would become ineligible, if they were subjected to this test. The Bechdel test has started an entire global conversation, just by asking one question.
So Bechdel is pretty awesome even if you haven’t read her graphic memoirs. But I can’t urge strongly enough that you do. Fun Home is the story of Bechdel’s relationship with her closeted gay father, who seemingly committed suicide, and how her growing awareness of this dynamic in her parents’ relationship was interwoven with her own self-discovery as a lesbian. Sex and death are in each other’s pockets in this book, whose title comes from the family business – the funeral home where Bechdel’s father worked and where she and her brothers morbidly played as children. This is an openly flawed, knowingly contrived search for meaning, revisiting the “many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family”. It turns a “senseless loss” into a narrative that doesn’t run chronologically, but flows effortlessly through its own emotional processing.
This extended therapy session is icily funny, uncomfortably thought-provoking and incredibly moving, not to mention centred on a cast of characters so fascinating they could never be fiction. Bechdel has that unique cartoonist’s gift of presenting something – visually and verbally – as utterly exaggerated and totally real at the same time. But I mostly love Fun Home because it is beautiful. I can’t say beautifully written, because it would be a shell of itself without the illustrations – but the clarity of expression that you see in the simple formulation of the Bechdel test is what makes Alison Bechdel a searingly honest novelist. The concise truth of her writing – about people, why they do what they do and the multiple realities of what, if anything, it means – will leave you stunned. I’ve never read anyone else who can pack so much emotional depth and complexity into so few words and still be writing prose. Each time I’ve read Fun Home, I’ve been struck with startling clarity by sudden insights into my own relationship with each of my parents, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
[A 1.5 mile-diameter neighbourhood map shows the places where Bechdel’s father was born, raised his children, died and was buried.]
This narrow compass suggests a provincialism on my father’s part that is both misleading and accurate.
The stories of Alison, her father and Alison-and-her-father are effortlessly laced with references to other stories. This is one of the most richly intertextual books I’ve ever come across, but it is never inaccessible or pretentious (first-year undergrad Alison is pictured reading Joyce and thinking, “What the fuck?”). If you want to feel like you have read and understood Proust, don’t read In Search of Lost Time. Read Fun Home. The same goes for Shakespeare, Henry James, Ulysses, I could go on. Reading and love of literature was one of the ways that Bechdel and her deeply repressed father found to connect, and remained an important way for her to understand the cruelty of the man’s complexity and failings after his death.
The humanity that comes from reading shines through Bechdel’s deeply painful and astonishingly compassionate reflections. It has also left her a truly brilliant wordsmith. Certain phrases have stuck in my mind from the first time I read them – the simultaneously momentous and menial work of preparing a corpse for a funeral, the job of her future-suicide father, “this scutwork of the flesh”. I’ll say it again – read Fun Home. It is a poignantly, nakedly honest contemplation of nothing less than what it means to be human, yet it is so very grounded, and articulated with beautifully tortured ease. Down to its very final illustration, it is piercingly moving – though many of the scenes make me laugh out loud, I always close Fun Home with tears in my eyes.
It’s hard to recommend you something else after that outpouring of my soul, but I’ll try. The richly deserved success of Fun Home has pushed the boundaries of other graphic works exploring an emotional journey. The most obvious example is Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, which, incredibly, won the 2012 Costa Biography Prize (probably the UK’s most important non-fiction prize) for its fusion of filial memoir and literary biography, paralleling the childhood of James Joyce’s daughter and Mary Talbot’s relationship with her father.
I should add in closing that, though I personally like my graphic literature narration-heavy, there are many startlingly original and immediately truthful graphic novels that have even fewer words – if any. I point you towards The Wrong Place by Brecht Evens, a watercolour reflection on loneliness, identity and the strangeness of social exchange that is wordless for pages at a time. This is the beauty of graphic novels – they are such a wonderful blend of genres and media that they can do pretty much anything. You’ll be a more enriched reader, and maybe even a better person, if you give them a try.
Note: some big players in the books industry are better than others at giving graphic novels a platform – Foyles on Charing Cross Road has a fantastic section, and you’ll notice that all the reviews quoted in this post are from The New York Times.