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.
nearing its tenth anniversary.
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.
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
page from 'Melinda', the new graphic novel by Neil Gaiman,
designed and illustrated by Dagmara Matuszak, from Hill
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
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
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.
House enters the fray.
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.
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.
Pekar is not the only one who is "Befuddled".
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.
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.
years as a file clerk gets you a movie contract.
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.
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.
literary graphic theme anthology.
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.
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
'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.
Matuszak, artist and designer of Melinda.
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.
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?
the men who started it all.
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.
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
Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
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.