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Literary Classics Vs. The Graphic Novel

January 31, 2010

While checking out some recent blogs on ArtsBeat, I came across a post for the New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller List. Since taking a class on postmodern literature at UW, which covered the emergence of the Graphic Novel as a new medium for story telling, I’ve been a bit fascinated by the format, so I clicked through to the list, and was more than a little disappointed with what I saw.

The hardcover list was topped by The Book of Genesis: Illustrated. It also featured graphic re-castings of The Wizard of Oz, Pride and Prejudice, and Steven King’s The Stand. Between these were the standard DC and Marvel faire – Batman, Wolverine, etc.

The paperback list was a bit more respectable, and featured graphic novel behemoths like Watchmen, Maus, and Persepolis in the top 10.

Graphic novels are a relatively new way of consuming books. They’re a fascinating mix of the visual and the story, that in some ways exceeds what you can get in a comic book in terms of story line, and what you can get in a novel in terms of representation. Maus is a fine example of a well-done graphic novel, because it tells a story, the narrative of a father’s experience in the holocaust and the effects it had on him later in life, including the effect on the relationship between him and his son, in a way never previously conceived. Each image tells as much of the story as the text does. Visual symbolism, like the representation of Jews as mice and Germans as cats, works as much as literature to contribute to the overall effect of the story. This story could not be told in the form of a novel, because the descriptions of the characters would lack the symbolism incorporated into the art. Using other visual media, like film or animation, to achieve this effect would push the aesthetic to close to the realm of cartoons and make the story seem trivial in comparison to the effect in the graphic novel. When employed correctly, and creatively, a graphic novel can be something completely different – a fusion or art and words that enhances both.

But, I must ponder the purpose of turning the Book of Genesis into a graphic novel. Or The Wizard of Oz, or Pride and Prejudice, for that matter. These are stories that have already succeeded as books. With Genesis, if the goal is to improve interest in religion among a younger audience, there are plenty of illustrated bibles or children’s books that achieve the same goal. I somehow doubt that the 20-somethings that are perusing the comics aisle at their local Barnes and Noble are going to be interested in picking this up. Those that are interested in Christianity will probably be at the point that they will be more interested in reading a bible than a graphic novel. Not to mention, the art is a bit… hoakey… for lack of a better word (and the cost – $25 for the Graphic Novel – I’m sure bibles can be found for much less).

In the case of The Wizard of Oz and Pride and Prejudice – these books have already made the jump to a visual medium, quite successfully, at that. The question arises then – do we need these things? Why are they being produced? Obviously, someone is reading these books – they’ve made it to the New York Times Bestsellers list.

It seems possible that some graphic novels are being made for the sake of making a graphic novel. Jane Austen did a pretty good job when she wrote Pride and Prejudice. It deals with people and inner dialogue, more than anything else, so visual assistants are not really needed (and we have them already anyway, thanks to the several film productions of the story). But, it’s a new medium, and it’s growing in popularity, so why not sell what you can while the getting is good? It ties back into the demand for new media and new things. Graphic novels are “new” so we want new materials in this medium.

I must question the value of these new graphic novels though. If we choose a graphic novel interpretation of a classic rather than reading the actual book, it seems possible we’re robbing ourselves of part of the fun of reading a book. With a novel, you are challenged to create a world in your mind that represents the words you’re reading on the page. With a graphic novel, that world is already created for you by imaginative and talented artists. No creativity needed. I’m sure the same argument was made against comic books when they began to gain popularity, but in an era where so much of our media is visual, where we replace reading articles with watching news clips, listening to a song with watching a music video, it seems almost dangerous to lose a little more ground for the written word. When stories are original and innovative, and take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by the medium, I think graphic novels are wonderful. But why reproduce something that’s already been done? We need more original work, rather than the same thing in a different skin.

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