For the longest time I kept hearing the term 'graphic novel' and I thought it was just a novel that had a lot of graphic language or sex or violence! A little less than two years ago I read my first graphic novel - a memoir, actually - Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. This was a good place for me to start - I'm a fan of Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For and Bechdel's story of growing up in a rather unique family is so compelling and well told. Poignant, funny and, yes, tragic.
This year some young friends introduced me to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I've never seen such wonderful illustrations, they come alive on the page. The story is sweet - Hugo is an orphan who lives secretly in the hidden passages behind the walls of a Paris train station. He keeps the clocks running. "A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message all come together." (From the Hugo Cabret website.)
After falling in love with these first two graphic novels, I went on to read Ethel and Ernest, the story of a family living in England during WWII. This was written by Ethel and Ernest's son, Raymond Briggs, and is a heartwarming story with wonderfully expressive drawings.
Next up was Persepolis, a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi who was born in Iran and lived in Tehran during the civil war and the Iran/Iraq war. Part Two is about her time in Austria attending school and then returning to Iran. Powerful stuff.
Two recent graphic novel/memoir reads were Blankets by Craig Thompson - a beautifully written coming of age story - and The Shiniest Jewel, Marian Henley's story of adopting a child from Russia.
Which brings me to today's graphic novel, The Arrival. This one is told only in pictures, no words at all, which is so appropriate for the subject - an immigrant leaving home and traveling to a country (presumably America) where he doesn't know the language and can communicate only with drawings and hand signs. The new world is a bizarre place, the food is different, the landscape and the cities are different.
The drawings in this book are beautiful; much can be understood by a facial expression, a gesture, body language. And the bizarre creatures and objects and buildings that represent the strangeness of this new country are evocative - fear, curiosity, alienation.
I'm going to read this book again today; it's one of those books that you can read multiple times and see something new with each reading.
I can't write a post about graphic novels without mentioning Edward Gorey. Though his works aren't novels, there are collections of short stories and single panel pieces that tell a story. You'll recognize his art from the PBS series, Mystery!
It's good to see this genre becoming so popular; I think it's a wonderful medium for story telling, as so much can be expressed by a good drawing (a picture worth a thousand words and all). Of course, like most things in our culture, it's gone too far when Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick show up as new graphic novels. I think a graphic novel needs to be written as such and not an adaptation from an existing book. I haven't seen any of these new adaptations, but my hunch is they lose something in the translation . (OK, how many cliches can I write in a paragraph?)