Funny Pages

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have, at best, an ambivalent relationship with comics and graphic novels. I can see the potential in the medium, and I've read works within it that I've admired or even liked a lot, but only very rarely do I truly love a graphic work (really, I think it's just the later volumes of Sandman). So that when a graphic novel gains praise and acclaim, I tend to file its name away for future reference. Then once or twice a year I go on a comics-buying binge, which is how I ended up, over the last week, reading three of the best-received graphic works of the last couple of years. Here are my thoughts.

The earliest of the three is Charles Burns's Black Hole. The compilation was published in 2005, but individual issues were published over a period of a decade. Burns's slow and meticulous work tells in the finished result, which is illustrated in stark, black and white drawings that flit effortlessly between realism and surrealism. A wound in a character's foot becomes a portal into another world, a deserted beach becomes a nightmare realm peopled by worms with human faces. The style is reminiscent of that used by French artist David B. in his magnum opus, Epileptic, but to my mind Burns is the better illustrator. His people are, if not quite photorealistic, then at least real-looking, as opposed to the slightly cartoonish look that the characters in Epileptic (and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, also illustrated in a similar style) come to assume, as are the inanimate details of his world--buildings, lanscape, greenery, and interiors. He also has a knack of conveying a lot of information with what has to be a very limiting palette. Several of his characters undergo profound emotional upheavals, going from healthy and happy to heartbroken, or vice versa, and despite working exclusively with pools of black and white space (and very little in the way of pen-strokes to convey grey), Burns is able to effortlessly convey the change in their circumstances, so that only a single panel is necessary for us to know that this character is in trouble, and that one has found some happiness.

Unfortunately, though it's plain to see how the artwork in Black Hole could have justified a decade of Burns's life, the story is slight and all too familiar. The book takes place in a 1970s American suburb in a world in which a sexually transmitted disease causes bizarre deformities in the people--mostly teenagers--who contract it. Some grow a tail, skin flaps, or an extra mouth. One girl sheds her skin. Others are completely transformed into monsters or half-beasts. The infected teens are treated with suspicion and disdain by healthy society, and most of them retreat into the woods. The main characters are Chris, a former A-student and class queen who falls in love with the boy who gives her the disease, and Keith, a borderline nerd who is in love with her and tries to help her before becoming infected himself. Both become involved with the society of misfits and freaks that grows in the wooks, simultaneously rejecting and reenacting the high school cliques they've been ejected from.

So, basically, Black Hole is a cross between an AIDS metaphor and a high school story, and though Burns's visual inventiveness is enough to carry the story along, when I turned the last page I couldn't think of a single thing Burns had said with Black Hole that hadn't been said before. It doesn't help that the narrative appears to be missing its third act--Chris and Keith start out as innocents being drawn into the underworld of those already infected, get sucked into it through, respectively, tragedy and salvation, and then the book ends without, to my mind, telling us the most interesting part of the story--how these two kids will manage in the great wide world to which they've escaped. A week after finishing Black Hole, its imagery is still vivid in my mind, but the story has left no impression beyond this troubling conviction that, for all of Burns's work and attention, it is unfinished.

If Black Hole prioritizes art over story, then Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which has no text at all except for an invented alphabet, would seem to take that approach to an even further extreme. And yet Tan's short and devastating book is more strongly and effectively plotted than many prose works. It tells the story of a man who leaves his home and family to work in a distant land, send money back to his wife and daughter, and hopefully make enough to bring them to him. It's a familiar story, if only because so many of us can look back a few generations and find someone in our family who did just this (for me, it was my great-grandfather, who left Belarussia and worked as a builder at the St. Louis World's Fair for several years to pay for passage for his wife and five children; my grandmother was the product of their reunion), but like M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, The Arrival takes dry history and transforms it into something heartbreaking and immediate. I've been hearing effusive praise for this book for several months, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming experience of reading it.

Tan's central conceit is that the country his protagonist emigrates to is as foreign to us as it is to him. I've already mentioned the invented alphabet in which every document, poster, and newspaper in the book is written, but there are many other details that reinforce this foreignness while recalling elements from the real world. Arriving at their destination by boat, the immigrants are greeted by a gigantic harbor statue, but one entirely unlike the Statue of Liberty (see above). They are subjected to the standard Ellis Island barrage of health tests and questionnaires, and then transported to the city via hot air balloons. Tan's inventiveness, however, amounts to more than a facilitator for his story. He clearly had a lot of fun inventing this magical, alternate New York, as well as his protagonist's place of origin (a city overgrown with huge, dangerous looking vines) and the places where the other immigrants he meets come from. All of these imaginary nations have obvious paraellels in the real world--the couple who barely escaped the conquest of their city by giants who sucked its inhabitants into tubes are probably a reference to the Holocaust, or perhaps any other instance of ethnic cleansing--but all of them are convincing, and stunning, in their own right.

My only complaint about The Arrival is that it is too hopeful and too kind-hearted. Tan's drawings tug at our heartstrings so effectively that we desperately want his protagonist to have a happy ending--as so many of our ancestors did after undergoing the same process--and are deeply gratified when he gets it, mostly because of the benign attitude of the city he arrives in and its inhabitants. But the story The Arrival tells is out of date. Nowadays, economic immigrants often have little reason to believe that they'll be able to make a new home and a better life for their families, and refugees from persecution and horror are no less likely to be sent back to it than they were at the height of the second World War. And this is not even to mention the scores of people who perish every day attempting to cross borders and make a better life for themselves. Lovely as it is, The Arrival presents a conciliatory fantasy about a subject whose reality is grim and terrible.

One of my greatest complaints about graphic novels is that very few of them are novels at all, by which I don't mean that it is ridiculous to call a memoir like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home a novel, though clearly it is, but that the amount of narrative material in most graphic works barely amounts to a novella. Black Hole may have taken Charles Burns ten years to put together, but I read it in a little more than an hour. It's hard for a work that demands so little of a reader's time to develop the breadth and heft that I associate with novels (or novel-like works of non-fiction). Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland is the exception. Not only is it long, but it is so exhaustively--and exhaustingly--detailed that, in an event unprecedented in my history as a comics reader, I found myself taking several sittings to get through it. There's so much information here, both written and graphic, that it is simply too overwhelming to take in at a single stretch.

Like Fun Home, Alice in Sunderland is not a novel. It is Talbot's love song to his home town, the titular Sunderland, a former shipbuilding center in England's north-east, and its history stretching back thousands of years. It is his love song to Alice in Wonderland, its author Lewis Carrol, its inspiration Alice Liddel, and the enduring image of the little girl who falls down the rabbit hole in our culture. And it is his love song to his medium, comics. Told in a psychedelic collage incorporating Talbot's line drawings and paintings, homages to comics stalwarts from Tintin to the caricatures in Punch, historical documents, photographs, and portraits, and modern photography (sometimes presented straight up and sometimes photoshopped), and within a a framing story that is either a dream or a theatrical review, Alice in Sunderland moves frenetically back and forth between these three subjects, and touching on many others. It's a display of geeky enthusiasm run amok, and done so effectively that it is hard not to be won over by Talbot's fascination with his subjects.

If there's any complaint that I can level against Alice in Sunderland, it is that this sprawling, digressive work is too huge to linger as more than a vague impression in the reader's mind. It isn't that, like Black Hole, Talbot's point seems too simple to have been worth all his efforts. Rather, Talbot has so many points, so many pieces of information in so many subjects that he wants to impart to his readers, that they end up forming a bubbling, fizzing mass of idea far too momentous for any mind to contain. Turning the last page of Alice in Sunderland is like walking away from a spectacular theatrical review knowing that one has seen something wonderful, but so overwhelmed and overstimulated that very few of its details have been retained. The only solution is to go again, to dive once more into Talbot's maniacal history and try to get a distinct impression of it beyond 'Wow.'

So, all things considered, not a bad foray into comics-land. Of the three, I probably love The Arrival the best and am most impressed with Alice in Sunderland, but all are worth a look even for people who don't read a lot of comics (people who do have probably read all of these books, and others far more esoteric, already). More importantly, such an impressive array of talent and accomplishment is surely a sign that I ought to get around to reading comics more often than once or twice a year.


Stephen said…
One of my greatest complaints about graphic novels is that very few of them are novels at all, by which I don't mean that it is ridiculous to call a memoir like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home a novel, though clearly it is, but that the amount of narrative material in most graphic works barely amounts to a novella. Black Hole may have taken Charles Burns ten years to put together, but I read it in a little more than an hour.

I think you're right about this, but I'm not sure that's the right frame of reference. I think graphic novels, in terms of the amount of "content" (however defined) they contain and the amount of time they take to absorb are comparable to movies. Movies, too, take "a little more than an hour" per go-through (1.5 - 2, usually, sometimes longer). And movies generally also have about a novella's worth of content to them (in my experience, novels made into movies need to be cut, short stories expanded; novellas work about perfectly).

Note that movies, too -- like graphic novels -- take an inordinate amount of time to produce: usually more people in fewer time, rather than fewer people in more, but still a great number of hours of human labor go into them.

I don't think this has much to do with the potential of the various mediums, nor with their youth/age or anything; I think it's mostly a matter of how human beings absorb visual (or in the case of movies visual/audio) versus linguistic information.

There are, of course, some graphic novels that take a lot longer to read, as you've noted in the past (it'd be interesting maybe to compile a list), just as there are long films, or films that flatly require multiple viewings for comprehension (and are thus effectively longer), just as their are novels that are short and rip quickly by. But these are the exceptions.

For graphic novels, incidentally, an additional limiting factor may be financial: it costs more to print illustrated pages than prose, and so graphic novels can't be as long as, say, a Dickens novel. (Or, if they are, they are serialized -- as was Dickens, for that matter.) Not to mention the basic financial issue of paying for the work to create the thing (whether lots of people for a year or two or a few people for many years). Thus lengthier comics narratives tend to be serials -- again comparable to movies, where the longer works are, in fact, TV shows (which in better cases work as long, serialized movies) -- where the financial burdens can be spread over time, interest can be gauged, etc.

Anonymous said…
"Black Hole" has been on my list for some time now, but somehow something else always found its way to the top before it. Your comment about this GN not saying anything new made me wonder, however - do you set the bar this high for written novels as well? Does any novel has to come up with a completely new perspective on its subject matter (a big problem, I think, when it comes to SF/F works)?

That's a fair point about graphic novels and films, and it (as well as the fact that I prefer TV to movies) may go some way towards explaining why I've had a better time with, and gotten more out of, a long-running series like Sandman, in spite of having at best lukewarm feelings towards at least half of its volumes, than a standalone volume like Black Hole.


I think I set the bar this high for stories set in high school or revolving around high school angst, because it's such an overused, and frequently overplayed, topic. Maybe this has something to do with my own experiences - I didn't have a great time in high school, but it wasn't the life-altering, horribly scarring experience that far too many books of Black Hole's ilk paint it as.

On a more general note, my criteria for enjoying a book is that it do something new, or do something well. Black Hole's artwork is done extremely well, which is why I still think it's worth reading, but its narrative is neither groundbreaking nor particularly well done.
Mike Taylor said…

Have you read Watchman? That seems to be substantial enough to qualify as a novel (there is no way I would ever get through it in a single sitting) and rich enough to repay multiple readings. Or are you turned off by the superheroeyness?
Anonymous said…
From your descriptions and example panels, The Arrival looks to me a lot like what the Codex Serafinianus would have been if it had been created by Chris Van Allsburg instead of Luigi Serafini. I'll have to check it out -- thanks for the tip!

Yes, I read Watchmen several years ago, and you're right that it (and From Hell) are certainly dense enough to count as novels rather than short stories - in fact, one of these days I'm going to have to get ahold of another copy (the one I read was borrowed) and reread it. That said, I liked From Hell a lot better - I just thought it had more interesting things to say.


I had to Google both of those names (for anyone interested, see here and here) and having done so, your description sounds about right.

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