Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Give Graphic Novels a Chance. by Maro Guevara

Like a lot of geeks, I take pride in my ability to turn other people on to the things I love. I’ve had some great successes (more than a few Battlestar and Buffy converts), but it seems to me that there’s one almost insurmountable hurdle for people sitting squarely on the sidelines of geekdom to overcome: getting into graphic novels and comic books.
 When a friend asks me what I’ve read lately, I often hold back. Should I tell them I just ripped through two and a half volumes of Fables? Will they get it? I feel like that inevitably is met with something along the lines of, “I’ve just never gotten into graphic novels.” It’s not exactly derisive, but I can’t help but feel like the medium is seen as sub par to novels, movies and television.

Part of the issue is that comics exist in a kind of in between space. They incorporate images and text, break up a story into panels and are usually serialized into long, sprawling stories that are told over years.

 When you think about it, what comic books can do is really incomparable to other forms of media, although the connection to cinema is very strong and natural. Regardless of similarities, it’s a way of approaching storytelling that’s unique unto itself--not just a storyboard for what “could be” an awesome movie.

I wonder if that’s the crux of the issue for many people. It’s a form that’s so different, that it really does take some decoding. A few months ago I was trying to sell someone on Saga. “You don’t understand,” I said, “If you like awesome art, you should read it. If you like politics, you should read it. If you love awesome dialogue and great writing, read it. If you love sexy times... just read it already.” The response from my friend wasn’t about not getting into the subject matter and world of Saga, it was about the fundamental nature of the whole thing. “Am I supposed to look at the pictures first? Read the text? Where do I even start.”

And to that I say, fair enough. Graphic novels demand and involve your attention and engagement in a way that movies don’t. At the same time, they fill in blanks more than a book (which leaves almost all of the visual information entirely up to you). The movement, flow and pacing of the story are guided by the way the artists arrange content on the page, but that spark that transforms static panels to a really kinetic, living breathing world is nothing without your brain’s own creative contributions.

There are imbedded clues and overarching rules about how you should make sense of a page’s layout, but there’s no tyrannically imposed set of guidelines for how you should be doing it. In that sense, I can see why the experience of picking up a comic book can seem so alien and maybe even cumbersome.

Ten points if you can figure out why this picture is so cool. -Ed

One thing that I’ve almost concluded for certain: people’s hesitance towards graphic stories isn’t as wrapped up in a disdain for the subject matter that these artists and authors take on as it used to be. Just look at what’s in TV and books now. The media landscape has taken an unabashed turn for the geeky. Our indie romances feature discussions about artificial intelligence, zombie survival skills are part of everyday vernacular and “Woah did you see those dragons?” is now watercooler talk.

Still, can you imagine jumping on the bus or train and seeing a bunch of commuters buried behind a trade paperback of Y-the Last Man or Sin City? I think a lot of people would be embarrassed at the idea of being caught in public enjoying a comic book, but let’s not forget that these are the same people going home to read Fifty Shades of Grey and tune into True Blood.

Maybe television can be an important point of entry for people to get into comics. For starters, Walking Dead is based on a critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name. If nothing else, that at least brings a sense of familiarity for people unfamiliar with comics to start dipping their toes. By the same token, a lot of television writers have found success on the written page (Brian K. Vaughn is maybe the best poster boy for that kind of crossover), so I don’t think it’s impossible to think that there can be some permeability between fandoms.

If the world is ready for American Horror Story, it’s definitely ready for a little Mike Mignola. If people have the patience and time for a world as large and involved as Game of Thrones, maybe they’re ready to immerse themselves in the mythology of a world like Fables as well. And if we’re willing to drag Star Wars back into the frey for the umpteenth time, then it’s definitely time to give a fresh space story like Saga a chance.

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