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What I love about graphic novels is the way they use pictures to evoke mood in a more immediate way than words alone. So much of communication is non-verbal and graphic novels let you experience the importance of a significant look or gesture. If the story is a memoir, they provide a kind of self-portrait. Like a comic they are guided by pictures, but unlike a comic they are focused on narrative rather than action.
Since I’ve spoken about all of these graphic novels before, I thought I’d spend today’s post talking about my renewed interest in graphic novels and how I’ve become a pretty big fan over the last year or so.
The first, and for a while the only, graphic novels I read were Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus books. I was introduced to Satrapi via the film Persepolis, and it was only from there that I went to read her work. I remember being blown away–not just by the nature of her experience–but by the young woman herself: cool, rebellious, full of conviction but also doubt, intelligent and never parroting. She was the person I had always wanted to be. In an interview with Vogue, she said she didn’t consider her work to be autobiographical because “…normally an autobiography is a book that you write because you hate your family and your friends and you don’t know how to say it to them, so you write a book and let them read it themselves.” Instead her story is a family history, and the history of the 70s and 80s of Iran told through the lens of her personal experience. It was an immensely important work, and even as a freshman or sophomore in high school I recognized that.
Part of me wanted more of this new medium I’d discovered, but I wasn’t sure where to get it. Our library wasn’t all that good of keeping up with the times, and there wasn’t much in the graphic section except for manga and comics. I admire both of these art forms, but they’ve never really spoken to me. So I went back to reading other things that spoke to me instead.
Then in college someone told me (or maybe I overheard someone speak about) The Maus series. I went looking for these specifically, and I was blown away. Art Spiegelman has said in many interviews that “the Holocaust trumps art,” and I think by and large he’s right about this. And yet his graphic novels are so full of emotional power,I cried reading them (which is not something I normally do). Maus II won a Pulitzer prize, the first and only graphic novel to do so.
I came to the graphic novel through other ways too. My brother was in the process of becoming a Bar Mitzvah, and his Sunday school/Hebrew school teacher took his group to see an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum about a graphic novel that depicted the entire book of Genesis. The artwork wrapped its way throughout the room and you could make out both familiar and not-so-familiar stories. It reminded me of the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah, during which the entire scroll is unwrapped (taking up the entire room), supported by the congregation. The end of the Torah and the beginning are supposed to be read in the same breath, showing that it has no beginning or end. It’s one of my favorite Jewish holidays, though I’ve only actually attended a couple of times.
Beyond this encounter though, most of my reading was relegated to school reading and various novels, and I didn’t seriously start looking at graphic novels again until after my fiance and I had moved to Idaho.
In the end, it was a Podcast that got me into graphic novels more seriously. The Bridechilla podcast interviewed Lucy Knisley about her book, Something New: Tales From a Makeshift Bride, and I was already reading all these wedding books, and I knew I’d have to add it to the list. So I read it. And then I read two more of her books. And then I started finding them all over the library in the new books section, in the staff recommended books section, and in the obvious place, the graphic novel section.
Apparently I was ready to embrace this medium. The art felt so immediate, so closely tied to the words on the page. Some of them were heavily researched, others were tales of personal journeys. Beyond the fact that they were often quick to read, making them a bit of a relief from a year largely spent reading books that weren’t all that special, they were a new world you could escape to in a single sitting.
Of course, I’ve also read some that I didn’t enjoy very much, and I’ve found that my favorites are either brutally honest personal narratives or meticulously researched but still lighthearted histories.
I still have a long way to go. But now I’ve gotten better at finding these books, and I’m more open about them finding me.
What’s your experience with graphic novels? Have you read any of my favorites or do you have a recommendation for me? Let me know in the comments!