My shifting perceptions of Graphic Novels

One of the strangest things for me in this process has been observing my own perceptions of graphic novels and how that has changed as I have gotten more familiar with them.

I start out as a mess at reading graphic novels.

Well, okay, maybe “mess” is a little too strong, but I’m really not good at it.  Really.

In the beginning, I felt completely un-fluent in the medium.  Before my manager told me of the need to write one, I had read 3 graphic novels, and I really only  liked one of them:  Watchmen.   Now I have read 26 more, but I didn’t grow up reading comic books.  They just weren’t interesting to me, even when I was a kid.

You may (rightly) wonder what I mean about being un-fluent in the medium.  I mean sometimes I don’t understand what’s going on.  Sometimes I don’t understand the pictures – what they’re trying to convey, or some of the details.  As, for example, perhaps I can tell someone is hitting someone else, but I cannot discern with what.   Occasionally I don’t understand what happened between pictures.  I have to assume what caused a certain result, because it wasn’t shown directly, and it isn’t obvious to me.

Sometimes I can’t tell if someone new who shows up is really new or is a character from before because they look so similar – especially in time-looped stories with flashbacks, etc.   Sometimes I’m not sure if a character is the same scene to scene, because they are drawn so differently, but I can tell from the story that they’re supposed to be the same character.  But they look different, and I’m not sure until much farther in if that is the same person or someone different, because there’s some trick or deception involved, or whatever.   So far, I’ve always been able to resolve these conundrums, but they can be tricky for several pages at a time.

Another example of my un-fluency in a different medium is video games.  I was at a place once that had various simple games projected on the floor – each for a few minutes at a time.  Frequently I had no idea how to play the game or what the object was, but these things were immediately obvious to the video-gamer guy who was there with me.

This is a very strange feeling for me, to be so awkward, because I’m fairly fluent in understanding written words and film.  When I started reading Shakespeare at around age 10, it was immediately transparent to me.  Sometimes I didn’t know some of the vocabulary, but that’s what the notes from the editors are for.  I’ve always been able to understand fiction and nonfiction, to be able to read between the lines, as it were, and to pick up lots of clues about what’s going on and what’s being conveyed without being directly said in those contexts.

I’ve studied film for thousands of hours, watching and watching, all kinds of films: foreign, classic Hollywood, mainstream, independent, art, genre, whatever.  Much of this before film school and before I ever started reading about films. When I watch a film, a thousand things run through my brain – I’m caught up in the story, to be sure, but I’m also analyzing that story: its structure, its characters.  I’m processing the direction, the art direction, the costumes and the cinematography, the editing, the sound design, and oh, my goodness, of course, the musical score that goes with it.  (I love movie soundtracks and frequently play them while I write.)

I feel reasonably fluent in the medium of film.  I know what’s going on, what’s being said without being said, I even frequently have a track of my brain running about the meta-situation of the making of the film – what it might have taken for the writers to sell the concept, how it might have been changed to fit the market or please the executives making the movie – or perhaps that the executives came up with the story to begin with.  I am that annoying person who is not surprised by many of the big “secrets” revealed in films – I see the signs well before the “revelation.”  (Of course, I never spoil anyone else’s surprise by letting on ahead of time what I have figured out.  That would be rude.)

All this flows through my head easily and fluidly as I watch a film.  I feel pretty fluent in the language of film.

So it’s a very strange feeling not to know what is going on in a story.

I got better.

As I go along reading graphic novels, it does get easier for me.  I’m noticing that I pick up a lot of the information more easily now.  It’s amazing how much can be conveyed in pictures that would normally require quite a bit of description in unillustrated prose.  (I still remember the determination on a little mouse’s face while facing a fearsome predator in Mouse Guard Fall 1152.  It’s printed on my brain.)

Now I have always loved picture books, and I have a decent collection, not just of my childhood favorites, but also of gems I have discovered as an adult.  Graphic novels are just a step beyond the picture book, in terms of how much story information is conveyed through the illustrations rather than the text.

It’s beginning to look a lot like the time to read Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.

I wanted to read a few graphic novels before I launched into this book.  I figured that after I had read some on my own, probably a lot of what he’ll say will make sense, much in the way that simply observing the world around you makes physics equations obvious when you study them.  I’m beginning to feel that I have enough experience, I hope, to be able to take in the info in this book, and that it will all make sense now.

Defending Graphic Novels.

I have found myself defending graphic novels as an artform to disdainful friends.  There is great beauty and depth in some of them.  I cried several times while reading Persepolis, for example.   I think the prejudice against graphic novels stems from their origins in comic books, and the idea that somehow the story is dumbed down to be conveyed through pictures – or that  a reader must not be as sophisticated if they need the information to be conveyed through pictures.  But I have found rich stories with complex narrative threads expressed in the graphic novel form.  They’re a beautiful marriage of narrative and art.

I myself have never felt disdain for them.  They’re just an art form I was unfamiliar with, one I didn’t particularly pursue.   Sort of like opera.  I think it’s fine, but I don’t seek it out, the way I do the ballet, or, oh my gosh, the movies.  Thousands of hours of my life were spent watching movies.   Operas, not so much.  I have gone a few times, and I enjoyed it, but I don’t pursue it, for whatever reasons.  I didn’t pursue graphic novels either.   Until now.

Now, any time they come up, any time I discover someone knows about the field, I ask them for their favorites, for recommendations, for insights.  I’m reading them all the time, and on the lookout for good ones to study.

Coming to think in Graphic Novel style.

As I think over my story, the one I’m adapting into a graphic novel, I begin to see it in panels.  Not only that, when I heard that Archaia wants a good, all-ages fantasy, I thought back to a story for a film I started years ago that would qualify – and then I thought of many story ideas that I generated for screenplays or teleplays, many of which could make good graphic novel stories.  Some of them could become an ongoing series, potentially.

That’s the way my brain works.  Once a new pathway for creativity opens up, my brain goes wild, cooking up new ideas.  I love that part of creating.  Well, I love a lot of parts of creating, but certainly the original rush of the ideas is one of the most fun parts.

And for all I know, I may need to continue in this field to make headway in film.  I don’t know until I get into it.  A friend of mine from USC film school who makes his living writing films has told me that graphic novels and comics are the big, big thing in film these days.   He said that Comic-Con, in San Diego, has become the new Sundance, where all the executives go to seek out material for their next film.

So in a weird way, this graphic novel project may not end up being such a detour after all.  Once my story is a graphic novel, perhaps it will be more appealing as a script for a movie.  (Which is how it started in the first place…)

I have to describe Graphic Novels to those not familiar with them.

A few times as I have described this new endeavor, I have had to explain what a graphic novel is to someone who doesn’t know.  It’s a little tricky.  I can start from the foundation of comic book, but there is so much more – more variety, more depth, more complexity than that.

Serious Reading?

Someone called me a serious reader, and asked me if it was difficult for me to switch to reading so many graphic novels.  I guess I’m a “serious reader.”  I read a lot of non-fiction.  The book I interrupted to take up reading graphic novels was Contested Will, by James Shapiro.   (And here’s another review of the book by another blogger.  I especially enjoyed this comment thread.  I have to stop looking for links for this book, or I will never get back to my own writing.  The Internet, oh so useful, but also, oh so distracting…)

Mostly I read non-fiction, because there’s so much interesting stuff to learn about in the world.  Of course I read (and re-read) a lot of books about writing, especially screen-writing.  My normal relaxation reading is history.  (Not historical fiction, though some people assume I read that.  There’s nothing wrong with historical fiction, and lots of people love it, but I’d rather read the facts: to me they’re fascinating enough.)

But I don’t find anything not “serious” about reading these graphic novels.  Now of course, I haven’t read that many, and a lot of the ones I’m reading are the best of the best, people’s top picks when they only gave me 2-3 titles, many of which recurred frequently in these recommendations.  Not only am I enjoying them, I’m studying them, to discover how they work, how the art form works, how they affect me emotionally.  A big part of my own film study was about the effect of different techniques – in writing, shot-selection, acting, art-direction, cinematography, etc.  All this in order to understand how to use the medium myself.  It’s the same with graphic novels.

And now for Something Completely Different.

At the moment, I’m rereading Dune, by Frank Herbert.  I read it once when I was a young teenager, and I never read any of the sequels.  I picked it up again now because I was going on a tw0-week trip away from home, and I wanted a disposable paper-back to read, you know, the kind you can easily carry and easily replace if anything happens to it.  Some group online proposed a group read-along of that book, so I thought, why not?  Of course, I’m such a slow reader that I’m barely half-way through the book and the online discussion is already over, but I decided to finish the book anyway, especially now that I’m studying the medium of the graphic novel, and this is providing a good example of a completely prose novel (for lack of a better term).

I find I’m studying the novel form as I read it and comparing it with graphic novels.  There is so much you can say in a novel.  Of course, this is not my original observation, but the novel is really the best medium for getting inside a character’s head.  You can just write what they’re thinking.  Not so much in other media.

In Dune, Frank Herbert is amazing at getting inside so many heads.  In a novel, the reader can be a very intimate voyeur.  In graphic novels, as in movies, one could write out the thoughts (and use voice-over in film or something), but usually authors don’t.  We show what happens, and the way characters react, and readers and viewers intuit the thoughts behind it.  I find graphic novels and film both to be very empathetic mediums.  Instead of having the character’s thoughts fed to me, I have to sense what characters might feel.  I like it.  (I like novels, too, don’t get me wrong, but each medium has its own beauties, strengths, and limitations.)

My Reading List, So Far…

For those of you who may be curious, here are the graphic novels I have read so far since starting this project:

Absolute Sandman, Volume 1, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, and other artists and creators

Adventures in Oz, by Eric Shanower

Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships and Sacrifice, by Eric Shanower

Artesia, by Mark Smylie

Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi

Girl Genius, Omnibus EditionVolume 1, by Kaja and Phil Foglio

Green Arrow: Quiver, by Kevin Smith, Phil Hester,  and Ande Parks

Inanna’s Tears, by Rob Vollmar and mpMann

Kill Your Boyfriend, by Grant Morrison, Philip Bond,  and D’Israeli

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, Winter 1152, and Legends of the Guard, by David Petersen (Legends is an anthology with numerous contributors.)

Persepolis 1 and 2, by  Marjane Satrapi

Promethea – the complete series, in 5 hard-cover collected volumes, by Alan MooreJH Williams III, Mick Gray, Jeromy Cox, Todd Klein, and Jose Villarubia

Y: The Last Man – the complete series, in 5 hard-cover collected volumes, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan, Jr., Goran Sudzuka, and Goran Parlov

300, by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

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