Here’s what I didn’t do on Friday: I didn’t spend any valuable work time reading through some killer comic books.
If I had spent any of Friday reading comic books (Yeah, I know I’m supposed to call them graphic novels. So sue me. They’re long comic books.), I probably would have spent a lot of the weekend thinking about the particular power that what’s known as sequential art seems to have. The argument over whether comics constitute a valid art form or a worthwhile contribution to the canon of great literature seems to be done. Comic books have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and nominated for the National Book Award. Plenty of critical works have been published, including books on sequential art as a medium and those on the undeniable influence that comic books have had on contemporary writers.
So I’m not here to tell you that comic books are worth reading. We can all agree on that.
I have been thinking, though, about why I’d encourage parents and teachers to get good graphic novels into kids’ hands. Why? Not because comics are just for kids. Many, if not most, of the book-length comics being published these days are for adults. No, it’s because more than any other art form, comic art is best able to explore the tension between what’s being said in any given moment and what’s actually happening in that moment. And learning that there’s often a difference between the two—both in literature and in real life—is a lesson that young people need to learn as early as possible.
Think about a panel in your average comic. You’ve got your speech balloon and your action within the scene. Inside the speech balloon is something like, “I’ve always preferred cats.” This line can have varying levels of meaning, depending upon what we see happening in the scene. If the person speaking is a nice old lady petting a sleeping kitty perched on her lap, the line sounds sweet and innocuous. But if we read her line of dialogue while the illustration shows us that same cat killing a bird, we quickly come to understand something disturbing about her character.
Comics aren’t by any means the only kind of literature that can pull off something like that. Hemingway was brilliant at it, certainly. But there’s something concentrated and immediate in the way that good comic art can illuminate that kind of tension. It’s why, say, the graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is somehow something more than the book, where the upcoming movie adaptation is likely to be something less.
It’s also why we’re expanding our graphic novels section. (There, I said it. Happy?) Writers and readers seem to have discovered the power of comics, and there are more and more books in the genre for us to stock. I hope our Gothic Shoppers will come in and let us recommend a couple of titles, both for themselves and for their kids, siblings, nephews, or students.
In typically contrary fashion, when thinking about comics’ ability to remind us that often what we think is going on is not in fact all that is going on, I found myself remembering not my beat-up, reread copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen(the best of the genre, by far), but of one of those old-fashioned, text-only, fiction-type books. Padgett Powell, in his masterpiece of southern fiction, Edisto (finally, thankfully, to be reissued by FSG this winter), has his adolescent main character give us these lines to remember: So that’s me. This is my motto. Never to forget that, dull as things get, old as it is, something is happening, happening all the time, and to watch it.
Reading comic books helps us to be better watchers.