Monday, August 16, 2010

First Officer's Log No 11: The Graphic Novel as Literature

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved art. I still dabble in doodling and drawing, and whenever I prepare to write a short story or a new part of a longer one, I usually spend several hours drawing and inking in portraits of characters or locations. I like to see with my eyes what I see so clearly in my mind. Sometimes, I even see something new, something I hadn't focused my attention on. There are little things, small objects, or symbols, that can tell a great story in their own right.

This brings me to this week with your friendly First Officer - the graphic novel as literature. Or if you don't want to call it literature, think of a graphic novel as something special, something that transcends the simple 32-page format every month to truly tell a grander story, something epic and meaningful. Of course, that could be wishful thinking on my part, but every once in awhile a graphic novel comes along that actually does qualify as something bigger than the usual comic book offering.

No list of graphic novels that are worth your time would be complete without Alan Moore's Watchmen, or Art Spiegelman's Maus. However, I'd like to draw your attention a few stories you might not know about, or even a common series or two that I think can be elevated above the standard comic book fare.

I admit tend to favor Moore's other series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Ignore the movie that shares its name and focus on the two-volume central story, its follow up The Black Dossier, and the new series, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, a three-volume set that begins with 1910. The beauty of Moore's series is the way he explores literature and has fun with it, while showcasing his own clear love and admiration for the book serials of the late 19th century, and yet making it accessible to an audience that might not seek out those stories on their own.

By now, you're probably familiar with the central League characters and the novels from which they hail: Mina Harker (Dracula), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Allan Quatermain (H.R. Haggard's adventure novels, beginning with King Solomon's Mines), the mysterious Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and the elusive Invisible Man. The literary references don't stop with our adventurous quintet, though. The first volume features the dastardly Professor Moriarty (of Sherlock Holmes fame), and the curious M (there are many Ms throughout the series, all leading up to the M with which many are most familiar, James Bond's M - Mr Bond, himself, makes an appearance in The Black Dossier, to much hilarity). The second volume features the Martian invasion from H.G. Wells' war, and additional appearances by Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic hero John Carter of Mars, along with the mad Dr Moreau and his bizarre creatures.

Moore's literary flair culminates with The Black Dossier, and the appearance of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a flamboyant, amusing and amused character who also wields Excalibur... and you get the idea of how much fun Moore has with his story. It's a wild ride, but well worth sticking out, especially for the visual gags that artist Kevin O'Neill spices up his art work with - including a previous group of the League, featuring the Scarlet Pimpernell and Natty Bumpo (aka Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans). It's a great graphic novel series for the literary aficionado to explore.

Another series is the Hugo-nominated Y The Last Man, Brian K Vaughan's 80 issue story about Yorick Brown, the last man on earth. After a mysterious plague kills every creature with a Y chromosome except for Yorick and his trust monkey friend Ampersand, he goes on an epic road trip seeking answers, with two women, the mysterious Agent 355 and the brilliant Dr Mann. Vaughan's series asks big questions about gender roles, the fate of human beings, intelligence, and even throws some spirituality in there for good measure. By asking those questions, Vaughan shows himself to be a strong writer, with a novelist's eye.

During his series, Vaughan also wrote a beautiful stand alone piece called Pride of Baghdad, based upon the true story of a small group of lions escaping the Baghdad zoo following the bombing of the city in 2003. In his story, Vaughan imagines four characters, two lionesses, a lion and a cub, and the world that they discover upon their escape from the destroyed zoo, using the real animals as stand ins for the people of Iraq War. Through simple dialogue and rich, gorgeously painted artwork from Nico Henrichon, Vaughan writes about the Iraq War from a decidedly non-partisan view, with no political axe to grind. Instead, it is a story about the devastation of war, how it destroys not just lives but cultures and history.

Other series that seem to transcend the general comic book shelves include Warren Ellis' delightfully subversive and cynical Transmetropolitan, about outlaw journalist Spyder Jerusalem, his two assistants, and the mad, psychotic future of politics, war, and the hunt for the truth about a corrupt politician and the world he runs, eerily reminiscent of the early 2000s in the United States.

Bill Willingham's Fables reimagines classic fairy tale characters relocated to the real world, exiled from their Homelands by a horrifying enemy, forced into the reality of New York. It is a series dedicated to great characters and classic tales, recreated and drawn out into a new, fearsome world that is like their own, and yet not. It is a series populated by famous characters including Snow White and Old King Cole; the gritty Big Bad Wolf (called Bigby); the clever Little Boy Blue; and a host of other classic fantasy characters, all contributing to a larger, grander story.

These are five graphic novel series that I think everyone should give a chance to if they can. Next week, I'll look at authors whose work has helped change the graphic novel into a respected format, as well as a few mystery writers who've decided to contribute their own spice to a particular series.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Note!! - I thought of another one: Grant Morrison's We3. Think... well, 'Homeward Bound' meets 'Robocop' seems to suffice. Morrison's one of the best of the contemporary comic book writers, and with his semi-regular artist Frank Quitely doing the art, this particular book, about three pets turned into living weapons by the military just trying to get home, hits home in all the right places. It's lovely, sad, heart breaking, and, ultimately, hopeful. One of Morrison's finest titles.

No comments:

Post a Comment