Here’s a secret: I’m a woman in my thirties and I love comic books. If you just thought “Oh, I would never be interested,” trust me: you’re missing out.
First, some distinctions: comic books are generally single issues; usually the thin, magazine-size format most people associate with comic books. They are published one issue at a time, often monthly. When several single issues of a series are published together in one book, it’s called a trade paperback, or trade for short. Some people refer to these as graphic novels. But to me, a collection of single issues from a series is a trade, and a graphic novel is a standalone story - a complete book.
Regardless of format, the old perception of comic books as all superheroes and villains, aimed at nerds and 10-year-old-boys – is no longer accurate. They are, gloriously, much more now, as varied as any other format of writing. But the old thinking persists, so I’m always delighted when a famous book is re-released in graphic novel format, like the recent (and excellent) version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
I wasn’t much into comics as a kid. I enjoyed a few issues of Tweety & Sylvester, Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry, and the occasional Archie comic. My mum would often tell me of the comics she read as a kid – Krazy Kat, Pogo, Dick Tracy, and Peanuts to name a few (I would be remiss to not mention those are much older than my mother). But despite the bright colours and obvious appeal to kids, I preferred traditional books, and regarded many of the comics I encountered – Asterix, Batman, Superman – as disinteresting.
I was hooked. No longer did the medium exist only to showcase the art - this was my first glimpse of the comic or graphic novel as a serious literary form.
And far from my childhood condemnation of comic books as boy stuff, there are plenty of graphic novels written and illustrated by women. Two of my favourites, in fact. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi powerfully and gracefully navigates her narration of growing up in revolution-era Iran – the challenges and danger she faced by virtue of being female, her interest in music and politics, and her isolation when forced to be separated from her family.
Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel is a memoir of the author’s childhood, as well as a bittersweet tribute to her family. She grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, where her father ran the family funeral home. The story recounts her feelings about her father from a very young age. Controlling, prone to fits of temper, mysterious and highly intelligent, her father is an oppressive figure in the family. Little by little, Bechdel as a child begins to realise he is not quite what he seems, and comes to understand he’s a closeted, trapped, repressed gay man, the misery of whose situation contributes to his unhappiness and the abuse and neglect he often heaps on the family. Intelligent and highly literary, Fun Home is an excellent read that must have been cathartic to write.
The world of comic books and graphic novels is no longer a simple playground littered with “BOFF!” “BIFF!” and “KAPOW!”. Countless talented writers have tried and embraced the genre, making it as rich and varied as any other you could imagine. I, for one, am glad.