Merry Wanderer of the Night + TIME

Guest Post: The Graphic Novel

Today I have a little something different. Last week when I wrote my review for American Born Chinese I couldn't help but think to myself What do I really know about any of this? I've reviewed a decent amount of graphic novels on here, and I read them quite a bit as a kid, but I still feel incredibly awkward reviewing them. I am under the impression that this is the sentiment from a lot of bloggers and readers who are interested in the graphic novel but don't know how to look at it critically. To try and remedy this here and for other people, I asked my graphic novel enthusiast friend Ron to give his thoughts on what exactly makes a good graphic novel and what he looks for. Please check out his thoughts!

In its simplest form, a graphic novel is a bound collection of comics between floppy covers. It may be part of a series, about six to eight issues, a standalone story, or an omnibus edition, which contains about thirty issues of a single series. Pinning an exact definition down for the term is tricky—there isn’t a concrete set of terms to define things within the medium. For example, in front of me sits Brit, a series of one shot issues—bound like graphic novel collections. But we’ll push the hardcore ontological stuff to the side for now and just focus on sketching out the graphic novel in broad terms.

The real key to understanding the graphic novel, and comics, is to understand that neither of them are genres. They are mediums, like film or books or even video games. All movies aren’t action films, nor are all comics about superheroes. So, like films and books, there’s something for everyone. Last week, I got my brother hooked on Brian Wood’s series, DMZ, which isn’t about superheroes at all, instead a second American civil war. While superheroes may have the highest profile in the industry (for example, Captain America’s death makes news) there are many individual genres to choose from.

Reading a graphic novel is also something that needs to be decoded by the reader. There are general guidelines to reading a graphic novel, determined by the positions of captions, panels and bubbles on the page. From both the written and artistic perspectives of the medium, a good graphic novel should never confuse the reader within the page or delay him or her from moving to the next panel in a clean transition. This is of course assuming you’re not dealing with a book that’s intentionally breaking these rules, just like in postmodern fiction.

But, as avid readers, it’s not all about reading the story from cover to cover and shelving the book. Graphic novels can be analyzed just like the rest of literature, but it may take some getting used to. Though comics are the synthesis of words and images, the brunt of the analysis comes from the image itself, like in film. It uses a very similar visual vocabulary, the borders of the panels act in ways similar to a film frame. If a character takes up most of the panel, it suggests power, the same way it does in film. If the panel is canted, it suggests similar unease. The comic differs from film in that it’s static images, not fluid cuts on a single frame. There is a larger context to panel design in how they work as a whole on the page.

The filmic analogy, however, doesn’t capture the breadth of actually analyzing a graphic novel: the words are important, too. Most of the text in a graphic novel is dialogue, that’s the way it should be—cluttering the page with explanations of the action is redundant, poor storytelling (postmodern and meta considerations aside).

Further mish-mashing mediums, the words even have power beyond their literal meanings. Bold words indicate important or stressed words, but the author doesn’t supply an emotional indicator afterwards, like “sadly” or “angrily.” The words don’t just sit on the bottom of the page, like filmic subtitles do. Different fonts can also hold different meanings. In David Mazzuchelli’s atounding Asterios Polyp, each character “speaks” in a unique, creator-designed, font, suggesting their different voices on a symbolic level. Comic book dialogue is unique to individual readers; it’s active reading.

This dense toolbox gives creators a lot to work with, so readers need to be diligent in identifying the particular tropes a writer or artist is employing. Some creators, like Alan Moore, will use everything at his disposal to construct the comic, while others, like Frank Miller, only use tools to highlight important elements in more standard stories. But much of the time, stories can be absorbed without worrying about postmodern dialectics within the work, or analyzing it as closely as English majors are wont to do. Once the medium is unlocked, the most important thing is to pinpoint interests. Like zombies? Grab the zombie book. Like superheroes? Your choices are plenty. Like Vikings? We’ve those, as well. So next time you find yourself near a comics outlet…stop in and have a look.

A little too serious for my own good,


Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Ron! Be sure to check out Ron's blog Entertainment Etc.

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Guest Post: The Graphic Novel + TIME