Aug 7, 2007

[Comics] Comics and the Graphic Novel

Comic books and their respective characters are staples of our childhood. Before we learned to read, a huge majority of us already watched television, tuning in to the cartoon versions of popular comic icons such as Batman & Robin, Superman and Spider-Man. As we struggled to read, Casper, Richie Rich and Wendy all lent a hand, guiding us slowly through their colorful world. Later, Archie and his gang would introduce us to the wonders of Riverdale, readying us for what high school might be like. However, as we grew up and our imaginations graduated into the more “adult” world of the literary novel, the myriad worlds of the comic realm beyond Riverdale Heights and the cartoon Metropolis and Gotham were ignored and relegated into something that was childish and infantile, only there for a quick laugh. Those who still persisted to read comics were then boxed in together with the Star Wars fans, the Star Trek fans, assorted tech weenies, and others under the general derogatory term of “geek.”

But, the recent box-office success and popularity of films based on comic books such as the 300, Batman Begins, Superman Returns and Spider-Man 3, have shown a shift from the perception of comics as something only for kids, into something that appeals to a wider, more mature audience. Obviously, this proves that there must have been something more to the comic book genre then previously thought and as such, what a comic really is has to be examined.

Initially used in newspapers as satirical drawings or in paneled strips to poke fun at current issues, the term comics gained popularity and came to refer to any published art, humorous or not, which was sequential. Magazines or books containing these comic strips were then referred to as comic books. However, in the 1950s, because of the rising number of children attracted to the colorful covers of increasingly gruesome comic books, the Comics Code Authority was created. This authority then monitored each comic book for material it deemed inappropriate (drugs, sex, horror stories, zombies, violence) and presented it with a seal of approval. Majority of stores did not distribute the comics without this seal. For over 20 years, the Comics Code controlled the plots created by the industry, forcing them to be child-friendly and as such, limited the growth of the genre and constrained its audience to a younger set, alienating the more mature-minded individuals who then focused their attention on the literary novels.

The breakdown of the Comics Code Authority begun with the exposure of its close-mindedness by Stan Lee in 1971 when his three-issue Spider-Man story dealing with the dangers of drug abuse (as suggested and sanctioned by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) was denied a seal of approval because it mentioned the word “drugs.” Problems also popped out with the term “zombie”, which was also banned. Inevitably, the 80’s led to a rise of comic book publishers willing to go drop the code, this led to the rise of quality stories such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (the only comic which appeared in Time’s list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present), which were able to appeal towards a more mature audience. Eventually, the monthly issues of the comic into which a plot was separate were united into a “Graphic Novel.”

The graphic novel went far beyond its origins as the funny papers, metamorphosing into something serious and complex, at times incorporating several themes into one cohesive whole. Graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen have proven this, with its numerous issues incorporating the themes of realism, fascism, betrayal, alienation, even love, together with the destruction of the ideal of the superhero, into one entity. Graphic novels are also more willing to examine taboos, the Hellblazer series, for example, has at times examined BDSM, bisexuality, bestiality, incest, drugs in England while its main character, wizard and trickster John Constantine, gallivanted around England and the world on quests. In part, the good attributes of the Graphic Novel may be attributed to its length. Usually, one comic book would not be enough to cover everything a writer would want to say, but through the use of multiple issues, the writer is able to control his work more and present it more beautifully. However, in contrast to the normal novel, it wasn’t only the plot and writing which was integral, the art was an important part as well.

The “graphic” part of the graphic novel is as important (and in some cases even more important) then the novel itself. From the cartoon-like art of before, artists such as Alex Ross, famous for his Justice League art, gained notoriety for their increasingly realistic portrayals of heroes, while others such as Frank Miller (who also authored his creations), became known for their bizarre and grotesque depictions of the human body. Art proved a window into a clearer visualization of the novel, seen through the eyes of both the artist and the writer. Thus, things that would have been overlooked or underemphasized in the literary novel – the fetid condition of a dead body, the extravagance of a party, a squalid environment, a field of skulls and bones, aliens of all sorts; these are given emphasis in the graphic novel, helping to drive the authors point deeper. Clues to the plot are usually not said in the graphic novel, they are seen. For example, the rusty old talisman you see being kicked around by a bunch of children might actually be an artifact of yore. This is more clearly illustrated in the poster of DC’s Countdown, wherein the position of each hero is important. Here, those whose feet are touching the ground are dead or will die, it is also important to notice which direction they are looking at and what they are wearing for more clues.

That is not to say that the graphic novel has its cons. For one, the monthly release may prove unattractive to those not patient. Another is the content of the graphic novel, most of which deal with either superheroes (Batman, Superman, Spiderman), the supernatural (Hellblazer, Sandman), or the strange (Exterminators, Fables). Although there are some graphic novels which chose to do something more mundane, dealing with matters of the heart (After Eden) or of historical events (the 300, From Hell, Maus) or life experiences (Persepolis), these are overshadowed by the sheer number of novels with elements of fantasy which present a different caricature of the world and which often serves as a satire for current events (Fables, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns) instead of a direct depiction like most literary novels.

Lately, comic book enthusiasts have become more and more accepted into society, losing the stigma of a geek, yet at the same time retaining their geekiness. Comics is an underappreciated field, miscast as something for children despite its background as an amalgam of two over-interpreted fields – graphic art and the literary novel. Through this essay, I hope not only to introduce you to the world of comics, but to keep your mind open to its different messages and ideas and appreciate it as something as important as Starry, Starry Night or Lord of the Rings.

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