Good Reading : December January 2008
When I travelled through Central and South America almost 30 years ago, I was shocked at the number of comics being read by grown men. Every bus, every train was full of adults reading comics – adult males, anyway; women didn’t seem to read anything, having hands full mostly with children, food and livestock.This phenomenon is mirrored in Japan, where everyone, I’m told, is into manga, those blood’n’guts, guns’n’gore comics that are making inroads into the Western world. But there are comics and there are graphic novels, two very different creatures.The current crop of graphic novels are direct descendants of the classics of the genre:Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows (1982) and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1992). Eisner is cred- ited with coining the phrase to describe his book, which celebrates the lives of immigrants in the Bronx tenement he lived in as a boy in the 1930s, although he apparently subsequently discovered that the ter m had already been used. A Contract with God, while having acknowl- edged limitations in terms of style and narrative, showed that the graphic novel was capable of dealing with serious issues and themes. Until the big super- hero comic books came along in the mid-1930s, said Eisner in an address to a conference in 2002, comic-strip-style artists were ‘just a step above graffiti. Graffiti hadn’t really been invented then, but graffiti came along and we were all delighted in the fact that there was an art form lower than ours.’ Eisner firmly believed that his medium was literature. ‘It’s a for m of literature, and it’s reaching its maturity now,’ he said, citing writers of the likes of Neil Gaiman, who also writes ‘normal’ novels. My own realisation that graphic novels could be as powerful, as ffecting and as deep as written ovels came when I read When e Wind Blows by Raymond riggs. It’s the extraordinarily moving story of an elderly ouple in England who have a aïve belief in ‘the government’. As the world heads towards World War III and a catastrophic nuclear strike, Jim and Hilda prepare by building a fallout helter (based on government pamphlets) and assume that the coming war will be just like the last one they survived,World War II. ‘I hoped,’ Briggs has written, ‘When the Wind Blows might strike a blow for the much-despised medium of strip cartoons. It showed that it could deal with a profoundly serious subject in a straightforward way and make a valid point.The book was discussed in the House of Commons [‘This House welcomes the publication of When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs as a powerful contribution to the growing opposition to nuclear armament and hopes that it will be widely read’], made into a radio play, and there were theatre productions all over Europe. Strip cartoons do not have to be comic cuts or muscle-bound men in tights socking bad guys on the jaw.’ But it was Art Speigelman’s Maus, described as ‘the most affecting narrative ever done about the Holocaust’, in which the Nazis are depicted as cats and the Jews as mice, that put the graphic novel firmly in the global spotlight when it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 – although it spoke volumes that the committee, unable to decide how to categoricalthe picture is as mighty as the pen Once derided as little more than ‘comics’, graphic novels have seen a resurgence in popularity — and in numbers published — in recent years. And they’re getting more and more sophisticated, as ALISON PRESSLEY discovered.