Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Ghost World
Daniel Clowes

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.

Fahrenheit 451 by Tim Hamilton and Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 by Tim Hamilton and Ray Bradbury
As a teenager, I became an even more avid reader, but stuck to books almost exclusively – my few comics were relegated to the basement with my other kid stuff. With the exception of the obligatory feminist-teenager foray into Tank Girl, I forgot about comic books entirely until I first picked up Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series as a teenager after hearing it referenced in the lyrics of a Tori Amos song. I was hesitant – weren’t comics kid stuff? Or if not kid stuff – certainly boy stuff?

But as I soared through Preludes and Nocturnes, then The Doll’s House and Dream Country and beyond, I set aside my reservations (and even openly read them on the bus). There were no throwaway gags, no childish or dumbed-down sequences, and plenty of quality plot to chew on. The writing was strong, the stories well-planned, and the characters dynamic, multi-dimensional and sophisticated.

Being a dark, fantastical tale of unreality, blurred dimensions and overlapping consciousnesses, Sandman is certainly not for everyone. But as I read, I began to notice something:  the art added to the story. And not because it was a strange or unusual story, but because a picture may actually be worth a thousand words. There is a subtlety of emotion, of expression and description, which while difficult to write, can leap to life in the hands of a skilled artist.

I realised the drawings were art. Some were simple and minimalist line drawings. Some were elaborate, sprawling and decadent scenes that commandeered whole pages. But all of them contributed to the story and enhanced it.

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.

Walt Kelly's Pogo
Walt Kelly's Pogo
That was 1995, and since then, the depth, breadth and selection of graphic novels has flourished and thrived. Some of my favorite reads have been in graphic novel form. One that stands out is American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Written in three separate storylines that eventually intersect, the story is one of heritage and culture, of tradition meeting modernity, and the struggle to find a place for our own individual identities in our past and present.

Some people might know (as it became a major film) Daniel Clowes’ tale of disaffected youth, Ghost World. Ghost World tells the story of Enid and Rebecca, best friends and recent high school graduates who are running out of things to ridicule. Out from the shelter of high school, they are facing the rest of their lives and the big world. Rebecca seems to accept and embrace the idea, while Enid, the more cynical of the two, becomes increasingly disillusioned with her options.

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. 

Greatest of the Graphic Novels

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Complete Persepolis
Marjane Satrapi
American Widow by Alissa Torres
American Widow
Alissa Torres
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Black Hole
Charles Burns
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Raina Telgemeier
Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman and David Polonsky
Waltz with Bashir
Ari Folman and David Polonsky
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
The Arrival
Shaun Tan
Epileptic by David B.
David B.
Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Adrian Tomine

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