Sometimes, the more complex the idea, the more simplistic the form of communication is needed to convey it. But neither the prose nor the illustrations in graphic novels are simple. Actually they are quite intricate and complex — and they are not just for kids, by any means.
In October of 2016, thrillist.com published “The 33 Greatest Graphic Novels of All Time.” Within their collection are significant, Pulitzer Prize-winning contributions to literary evolution by revered artists and storytellers who have brought the art of communication full-circle to the very origins of literature with extremely sophisticated, modern-day images. Or as some refer to them, hieroglyphics.
This list covers a wide gamut of themes, but for the sake of brevity let’s examine only the top 5 graphic novels leading their list of the greatest:
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” written and illustrated by Phoebe Gloeckner, published in 2002 and later adapted into a film in 2015. It adapts Gloeckner’s real-life teenage diary, in which she detailed her sexual relationship with her mother’s very adult boyfriend and her own downward spiral into addiction and abuse. Gloeckner juxtaposes prose passages from her teenage self’s cassette-recorded journal, stand-alone illustrations that portray her experiences as she felt them at the time, actual drawings and comics she created during the years the diary chronicled, and contemporary comics that reflect her adult understanding of the events that befell her.
The resulting work has a power far greater than the sum of any of its parts — a blend of youthful naïveté, jaded cynicism, and grown-up empathy that lets no one off the hook yet refuses to judge or condemn anyone, allowing the reader to make those decisions as a sort of proxy for the girl who wasn’t able to do so herself.
“Jordan Wellington Lint: The ACME Novelty Library 20” by Chris Ware, published in 2010. What is truly extraordinary about this issue is the main character of the book, Jordan Wellington Lint, isn’t your typical sad-sack character, prone to endless navel-gazing and intermittent weeping. He’s deeply damaged, of course — you’d expect nothing less — but he’s more rounded a character than previous Ware stooges: he’s a jock and a bully, then a stoner and a dropout, then a husband and a father, and finally a grandfather and father all over again.
What we witness is nothing less than one person’s entire life, from Lint’s first abstract glimpses of his mother’s face, to his last desperate moments on a hospital gurney. In between those bookends is a story of searing ordinariness, an achingly real account of a life of small triumphs, desperate disappointments, some laughs, some highs (mostly centered around football), some pain, some anger, money made, money lost … all the stuff that each of us go through in our own ways.
“Black Hole” by Charles Burns, published between 1995 and 2005 by Pantheon Graphic Novels, is a twelve-issue comic book limited series. Set in the suburbs of Seattle during the mid-1970s, the comics follow a group of mostly middle class teenagers who, over the summer, contract a mysterious sexually transmitted disease known as “the Bug” or “the teen plague,” which causes them to develop bizarre unique physical mutations, turning them into social outcasts.
The story generally focuses on four central characters switching back and forth between their lives as they come in contact with and contract the disease. Apart from some introduction into the setting, the story starts off with Chris contracting the disease from Rob, a popular kid in school. Because of a failed attempt to warn her of his condition, Chris is not aware that Rob is infected until they are already having sex. Chris immediately feels she has been deceived and stops speaking to Rob for some time. Around the same time Keith contracts it from Eliza, a woman he meets while trying to buy cannabis at a friend’s house. Although it is not made explicitly clear, Keith seems unaware that Eliza’s mutation (a tail) is actually a disease that he can contract from her, although he never outwardly discusses the disease with Eliza, even after it has manifested within him.
Burns has said that the mutations can be read as a metaphor for adolescence, sexual awakening and the transition into adulthood. Burns’ vision of this creepy subculture buzzes like a black-light poster; no depiction of drugs in the history of comics has ever been more disorienting, and few sex scenes have ever been as genuinely intense.
Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,” published in 2001, is ranked number 4. This story splits its time between the title character, a prematurely aged 30-something sad sack reuniting with his deadbeat dad for the first time in years, and flashbacks to the youth of his grandfather, neglected and eventually abandoned by his father during the 19th century. Anyone who’s ever called Ware cold is completely full of it: The mechanical precision of his artwork and the digital complexity of his panel layouts may make it appear harsh, but this is the most heartfelt look at family the art form has ever produced.
From the covers to the indicia to fake ads and editor’s notes, Ware treated the “comic book” not as a mere vessel for the comics inside, but as an art object in and of itself. This grand experiment gave birth to Jimmy Corrigan, which in its collected edition was the most acclaimed graphic novel since Maus some 15 years earlier.
“Maus” by Art Spiegelman is the definitive granddaddy of graphic novels — without this book, you wouldn’t be reading this list. Serialized from 1980 to 1991, “Maus” is a family memoir of life within the Holocaust from his parent’s point of view, told within the unique perspective of cats and mice. This distracted the first reviewers by tying the subject matter to cartooning’s long history of anthropomorphizing animals — from Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat on down. But in the end that’s just a fig leaf that enables Spiegelman to go further and hit harder than a more straightforward depiction of events could dare to pull off — similar to moving the camera away from the slaughter but still broadcasting the screams of both the living and the dying.
Up until the publication of “Maus,” public perception of comic books was as adolescent power fantasies, inherently incapable of mature artistic or literary expression. Most discussion focused on comics as a genre rather than a medium. Maus proved difficult to classify to a genre, and has been called biography, fiction, autobiography, history, and memoir. Spiegelman petitioned The New York Times to move it from “fiction” to “non-fiction” on the newspaper’s bestseller list, saying, “I shudder to think how David Duke … would respond to seeing a carefully researched work based closely on my father’s memories of life in Hitler’s Europe and in the death camps classified as fiction.” The Times eventually acquiesced.
The Pulitzer committee sidestepped the issue by giving the completed “Maus” a Special Award in Letters in 1992. After its Pulitzer Prize win, it won greater acceptance and interest among academics. The Museum of Modern Art staged an exhibition on the making of “Maus” in 1991–92.
Since the beginning of time, man has struggled to share his life experiences with others — lessons learned of where dangers lie, where sustenance can be found, whom to trust, whom to fear and what is worthy of exaltation. Communication in any form is a necessary requirement for mankind — and whatever form relates the story best is fully legitimate. If a complete idea can be transferred from one person’s mind to another’s through words, illustrations, actions, or recordings — isn’t that the goal?
No, graphic novels are not mere comic books for adults. And conversely, comic books are not mere graphic novels for children. But rather, both are legitimate forms of instruction and communication appropriate for any receptive audience.
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on titles to purchase.
The 33 Greatest Graphic Novels of All Time
by Sean T. Collins for Thrillist.com
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
by Phoebe Gloeckner
The ACME Novelty Library
by Chris Ware
by Charles Burns
The Complete Maus
by Art Spiegelman
Books by R. Crumb
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