Agony Column Exclusive Commentary


Words & Pictures
A Reader's Guide to Reading Graphic Novels
The Agony Column for December 31, 2004
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
Click here to see a gallery of huge images from the works reviewed!
Now nearing its tenth anniversary.
I finally caved. I'd been threatening to cave for a good many years now, though in a sense, I'd long ago caved. That would be back in -- I believe -- 1995 -- when I first read the Dave Gibbons / Alan Moore classic 'Watchmen' in its omnibus format. And while I enjoyed the hell out of this novel, I didn't find much else to compete or compare, so it remained an exception. Reading graphic novels never became the rule.

That was almost ten years ago, and in the intervening years, plenty of graphic novels have popped up that were clearly worthy of my attention. But that didn’t get them read, even though I bought a Neil Gaiman hardcover from DC comics earlier this year with the express purpose of reading it. For the time being it appears to have disappeared into the bowels of my library, though there's some slight possibility that my oldest son took it to art school. OK, but the upshot of this is: not read. So what finally forced my hand?

Well, as you might expect it was confluence of incoming books. From the second I saw the Charles Vess collection 'The Book of Ballads', I knew that I wanted to read it. This hardcover "graphic novel" from Tor was beautifully produced and extremely tasteful. As someone who has campaigned for more illustrated books -- especially if they're illustrated by J. K. Potter -- you'd think I'd really like graphic novels and welcome more rather than less illustrations. But the thing I liked about the Tor title was that it was entirely in black and white. It really looked like a book. And tasteful? You don't get more tasteful than Charles Vess, whose work I'd previously enjoyed when I came across an illustrated edition of 'Stardust' by Neil Gaiman. But that was an illustrated book, not a graphic novel.

A page from 'Melinda', the new graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, designed and illustrated by Dagmara Matuszak, from Hill House.
Still, once I got it, it went into the "IN" stack and stayed there, beat back by typeset, non-illustrated titles. And there I thought it might stay. Silly me. I thought I could avoid the Graphic novel phenomenon.

After all, I'd done so for ten years. Now, don't take my disinterest for a lack of respect. There are reasons for my willingness to avoid graphic novels. For one thing, I like typeset type. Hand lettering is hard for me to read. And there are certainly more than enough typeset novels to keep me busy. As I fell further and further behind in the graphic novel genre, I grew more and more despondent as to my ability to ever catch up. Furthermore, I wondered which graphic novels would stand the test of time. Books and authors certainly had -- not all books, and certainly not all authors, but the categories had. Really, all I had back then was 'Watchmen' to cling to, which was clearly the work of a superior writing talent.

A contemporary of 'Watchmen' that I vaguely remember reading about was something called, I think, 'Cerebus'. The problem with 'Cerebus' -- and indeed for me, with most modern graphic novels -- was that they were episodic in nature, and if you didn’t buy Issue #1 -- and all those that followed -- then you couldn’t get the whole story, and I was loathe to start reading a single story that I might not finish, might not be able to finish, or that indeed, might never be finished.

And now that I think of it, I guess my whole problem with the genre goes way back to my childhood. Many folks my age, who hit their teens in the 1970's, to give a range without being overly specific, grew up reading comic books. They collected comic books and early in their lives got in the habit of buying Issue #1, then Issue #2, and so on, used to the episodic format and the buying habits required to maintain it.

In my house, comics and cartoons were verboten. My earliest memory of a comic book is, interestingly enough, an early memory of what could arguably be called a precursor to the modern graphic novel storytelling format. That was the 'Classics Illustrated' version of no less than 'War of the Worlds' by H. G. Wells. It creeped me out, but I really loved it. Still I only saw it at a friend's house, and never even thought of buying it or others like it.

Many years passed, and I fell into the evil ways of the Book Addict, always seeking a new source of Read. And for me, graphic novels were no more Read than marijuana is heroin. I couldn't get a buzz off those words, panels and pictures, no way. Even from the finest graphic novel, like 'Watchmen', though some small, un-addicted part of my brain was able to recognize an interesting substance. The receptor sites were all blocked by something to my mind stronger.

The first tiny pinprick in the wall was 'The Book of Ballads'. I didn’t know it then, I thought the dam was plugged, even as I told myself I wanted to open up for the flood. And yes, the real ringer, the kicker, The Opener of the Gate -- to get all Lovecraftian on you -- was Harvey Pekar's 'American Splendor: Our Movie Year'. When I got that, there was no longer a pinprick -- there was a brick loose from the wall. The water was pouring through. I not only read portions of Pekar's latest opus, I went back to the 'The Book of Ballads'.

Hill House enters the fray.
Of course it was two very non-traditional items that broke down the wall once and for all. For almost a year, I've known Hill House as the company that makes some of the finest printed works of art money can buy. When they announced a Neil Gaiman graphic novel collaboration with Dagmara Matuszak, I knew that I'd without doubt be reading it. And then there was the entirely non-graphic novel, non-fiction work to inform the sensibilities that were being skewed to read graphic novels, Gerard Jones' 'Men of Tomorrow'. This history of the comics business gave me some background on where what I was reading came from. That was that. I was reading graphic novels. As are all things, it was easier said than done.

The reading experiences offered by a typeset novel -- even if it's illustrated -- and a graphic novel -- even if it's laden with words -- are quite different. When you are immersed in a typeset novel, you as a reader are creating a sort of movie experience in your mind. Some writers create a more cinematic experience and others a more abstract experience. As you read, the words flow from the page at a rate you the reader have some control over, though often not as much as you’d like. Some books can't be read fast enough, while others a reader will slow down to savor, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. The reading experience is words-only, and the reader's ability to convert those words into the reading experience is the key to enjoying the work.

Harvey Pekar is not the only one who is "Befuddled".
With a graphic novel, you have something completely different, even though it appears quite similar. From what I can tell -- and somebody is welcome to correct me -- graphic novels are pretty much what we used to call comic books, aimed at an adult reading sensibility.

In the first place, many of the so-called graphic novels are not graphic novels in the sense that 'Watchmen' was. They're episodic montage narratives, or disconnected short story collections. Not that I'm holding that against them, though I prefer reading novels to short fiction, and that certainly plays into my disinclination to read graphic novels. Moreover, even if they are novels, they're often released in serial form. The Issue #1 rule takes effect and puts the bar up against me reading them, so I don't -- until they come out in an omnibus format, as did 'Watchmen'.

But damn it, it's the words and pictures that threw me at first, even when I wanted, I really wanted to read them. You see, as I pick up a graphic novel to read, I'd just speed through the words and glance at the pictures, applying the same reading sensibility to the graphic novel that I did to the typeset novel. That style of reading renders the graphic novel into an annoyingly vapid and underwhelming reading experience. The pictures then lack the fullness of illustrations and the words lack the richness of a novel. The experience won’t gel correctly if you read graphic novels like novels.

So it was helpful to have the Pekar, the Vess and the Gaiman books available. For me, the three of them provided an entrée into the world of reading graphic novels, helped me build -- and I can't believe I'm saying this, but it makes perfect sense -- the graphic novel reading abilities I lacked.

35 years as a file clerk gets you a movie contract.
I'd started off with the Harvey Pekar title. Realizing that my readers are readers, I'll hasten to give the brief background I had before picking up this book. Pekar was a guy who worked as a file clerk for some 35 years in Cleveland. Early on, he got the idea that his life as a file clerk might be an interesting, if not obvious subject for adaptation by Robert Crumb, whose works were then called "underground comics". He contacted Crumb, who liked his work and started working with Crumb and others producing a series of comics he called 'American Splendor'. A movie was made that received good notices, and was apparently a good movie. Pekar rose above the level of obscurity that kept him out of attention, and when 'American Splendor: Our Movie Year' came to my attention, I actually picked it up, opened it up and read from the first page. From that moment, I was hooked on Pekar's voice. The rest of the graphic novel reading skill set came, but more slowly than I understood it to be coming.

Pekar sucked me in from the start with his winning, "just-me, folks" voice. The first piece in the book, 'Our Movie Year', illustrated by Gary Dumm was simply very engaging. Dumm's art was a rather transparent addition to the prose, for me, and I was able to assimilate the story without changing my reading habits substantially. But this story was pretty atypical, both as a Harvey Pekar tale and as a graphic story. It was highly text driven, and the text was about Harvey's adventures in Hollowood, not about his quotidian life as a file clerk. But a bit further in, I encountered a story that was more typical of the graphic format and Pekar's work, 'Waiting for a Jump', with art by Gerry Shamray that veered wildly from photo-realistic montage work to line drawings. Confronted with a full-page drawing that had only six words, I realized I shouldn't be zipping past it at light speed, even though I already had. So I went back and re-read the story, but I re-read it as a graphic story. When I came to the page with six words on it I spent some time taking in the picture, then read the words.

A literary graphic theme anthology.
That put me a comfortable 35 pages into 'Our Movie year', and clearly this was a piece written in an episodic format. I could and probably should switch from one work to another, to give myself a break from Pekar's work. I picked up 'The Book of Ballads', which in many ways was the precise opposite of Pekar's work. Instead of featuring the work of one writer and many artists, it featured the work of one artist and many writers. Instead of taking Joe-six-pack as a subject, it took on rarified versions of old English ballads re-scripted into graphic short stories by famous fantasy writers. This book begins with a wonderful piece of writing that demands the skills that are the antithesis of those required to read a graphic novel. Terri Windling's introduction is a scholarly, entertaining and densely written brief history of the English ballad. I loved it but I had to mentally ratchet-back my reading speed as I tackled the story that begins the collection 'The False Knight of the Road', with a script by Neil Gaiman and art, of course, by Charles Vess. Readers expecting Gaiman's sense of humor and verbal playfulness had best check those expectations at the door. Gaiman's script is sparse, and I realized that I could whip through reading this story in about three minutes. But that would totally, utterly miss the point.

So, with the Pekar experience under my reading belt, I took my time, working to enjoy and assimilate the details in Vess' illustrations. As I did so, I realized that these details are part of the story telling process, an essential part. One needs to pay attention to the changes; for example there are a series of spine-like projections that slowly seems to emerge from the back of the False Knight as the panels progress. They're never mentioned in the Gaiman's words, and one of the interesting factors for me in reading this --and the other stories -- was my curiosity as to precisely how scripted the stories were. Did Gaiman hand over the sort of "stick figures" that Pekar at one point mentions? Whatever the case, the fact that they weren't alluded to in the narrative portion of the story proved to me to be a plus, adding a layer of visual ambiguity and complexity that the words simply were not capable of conveying. I thought, as I finished reading the story that I was beginning to get it.

A look inside 'Melinda', with trext by Neil Gaiman, designed by Dagmara Matuszak.

In Vess' collection, it's the art that provides the analog of the story arc, the thread of connectivity between the tales, even though this is not a novel, but clearly a collection of short stories. In the Pekar collection, it's his voice that provides the thread of connectivity, the narrative arc that holds the collection together. But neither of these is a single work, per se. For that, I went to Neil Gaiman -- again -- and the Hill House production 'Melinda'. As usual, Hill House leaves all comers behind. Now this is not to say that I enjoyed the other works more or less, but the production values of the Hill House volume are far beyond those of any other graphic work I've ever seen. As in the Vess story, Gaiman strives for and achieves a tone of muted beauty, telling the story of a young girl wandering about a surreal city. The story is told not in panels, but typeset in short sentences on pages where designer and illustrator Dagmara Matuszak creates an incredibly complex and detailed visual space that neatly teaches the novice graphic novel reader to slow the hell down and absorb the glorious details that are integral to the story.

Dagmara Matuszak, artist and designer of Melinda.
'Melinda' is the first work we've seen in the US by Matuszak, but I'm certain she'll be called on for more work. In fact, she and Neil Gaiman are already planning their next work together. Originally, I believe, Gaiman thought that she was simply going to provide a few illustrations for the story. But what evolves in 'Melinda' is nothing less than a rather amazing piece of graphic storytelling. Between Gaiman, Matuszak, Hill House and Off Print -- the actual printers of the book -- what comes to coalesce for the reader is a unique experience that doesn't lend itself to a verbal description. Readers who want a book that is a complete work of art that includes gorgeous black and white illustrations and with color paintings tipped-in can go nowhere else and find nothing better.

So I went from book to book, from landscape to landscape. In the process I reviewed 'The Book of Ballads', and 'American Splendor: Our Movie Year'. In fact, I was so inspired by 'American Splendor: Our Movie Year', I even out together a Harvey Pekar-style graphic review of the book. Damn, it was too much fun.

About the men who started it all.
In the midst of this graphic feast, I finally managed to get 'Men of Tomorrow' by Gerard Jones. This book is neither fiction, nor graphic novel, but rather, a non-fiction history of the men who created the comics business as we now know it. Happily, Jones does not ignore the pictorial nature of the business, and a large section of photographs is included. But Jones tells his story as if it were a novel. This is not a dry recitation of the facts, but a dramatic re-telling of lives mundane and exciting, a story that helps bring to life for readers the background of the graphic novels we're all reading. I can include myself now, can't I?

Gerard focuses his stories on two pairs of men. Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Liebowitz were the publishers, while Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were the geeky kids. But he cuts his story as if it were a movie, beginning with Jerry's understandably unhappy response when he heard the details unfold as the first Superman movie was being made. Siegel was incensed, publishing a letter deriding the "INFERNAL, SICKENING SUPER-STENCH," that "EMANATES FROM THE NATIONAL PERIODICALS." Then from there, we're back to the beginning, when Siegel and Shuster were just kids who wanted to create another world. That world turns out to be our world -- a world where comics have become not just an entertainment, but an art form.

Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
And from there, I was back in that world of Pekar, Vess, Gaiman, Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, Matuszak, and Emma Bull -- a host of talents, providing a variety of visions -- actual visions in addition to the envisioned type provided by reading typeset books. It took me a while to learn to slow down, a while longer to pace the panels, so that I could enjoy the visual progression of the story as well as the text-based plot. In both Pekar's stories and Vess', the visual elements enabled the storytellers to extend the implications of the story, to provide a level of depth that text alone cannot provide. And while they don't replace the world of typeset texts, these graphic novels and books about graphic novels do provide a fascinating alternative, as well as a new way to experience the work of writers we already admire.

Now, as to the contest I alluded to elsewhere...send me an email. Put in the subject GN Contest. Include your mailing address in the message itself. You have until say -- January 5, 2005 to do so. I'll print out the entries, put 'em in a hat, and draw the names of the lucky winners, who will be mailed some books. I'm on the road right now, so I can't even say what they'll be, or how many they'll be. It depends on what I can wheedle out of the publishers.