So we’ve all heard it before, comic books are trash. They’ll rot your brain. You should read a “real book” instead. Yeah, comics and graphic novels definitely have a bad rep. In fact, in the 1940’s and 50’s their reputation was so bad that they were often blamed for juvenile delinquency, homosexuality, and lower intelligence levels. Things got so bad that the comic book industry was investigated by Congress to see if reading Superman would really make someone stupid or want to rob a bank.
Luckily things have gotten better for the format in the last few decades. The question remains, however, is a graphic novel capable of conveying the same emotional depth and complex, thought provoking ideas as a traditional novel? The answer is a resounding yes!
Mauss: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman is one of my favorite literary graphic novels and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Told in two parts, this biographical comic follows the author’s parents, who were Polish Jews during World War II, as they go from denial, to attempted escape, to eventual capture and incarceration at Auschwitz. However, this is more than just a story about the Holocaust, the book also tells the story of a father and son who struggle to relate to each other when they have lived such different lives. The art is striking, and while it is cartoonish at times in it depictions of the Jews as mice and Germans as cats, is jarring in its harshness at others.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is another story of a family caught up in a war. Through the eyes of her childhood self, Marjane Satrapi tells how her family held high hopes when the hated Shah was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution, only to see those hopes shattered as Islamic fundamentalist took over the country, taking away what few freedoms they had left. She watches as family friends disappear and her mother puts black curtains over their windows to keep their neighbors from informing on them. While Marjane herself is witty and defiant, the images in this book are stark, illustrating the bleakness of her family’s situation.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang was a national book award finalist in 2006 and mixes Chinese mythology with modern storytelling to weave a tale of self-discovery and, more importantly, acceptance. In this book Yang tells three seemingly separate tales. One of a young Chinese- American boy who moves from San Fransico’s Chinatown to a suburban neighborhood where he is one of only two Asian students at his school, one of Chin-Kee, the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype personified, and one of Chinese mythology’s powerful Monkey King. These seemingly separate stories come together through a strange twist to form a truly climactic and philosophical ending that readers will never see coming.
Finally my absolute favorite literary graphic novel is The Arrival by Shaun Tan which tells its entire story through art with no need for words. Through Tan’s incredibly detailed and beautiful pencil drawings the universal immigrant experience is revealed as the main character travels to a faraway land where nothing is familiar. Strange creatures, food, and customs abound as he tries to make a better life for himself and his family. He is helped along the way by kind strangers who in turn have their own stories.
So whether you’re an avid graphic novel reader looking for a bit more substance, or new to the genre, there are many literary graphic novels out there to choose from. Don’t believe me? Try some of these other great titles!
Buddah by Osamu Tezuka
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Level Up by Gene Luen Yang
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle