Thursday, December 3, 2009

Experiment 4 - Graphic Novels

Writing Experiment 4 Why are graphic novels a great tool for reluctant readers?

Graphic novels are a unique sort of medium. Not a compete picture book, but not a straight prose story. Instead, graphic novels are an amalgamation of two forms - pictures and text. Unlike a picture book, which relies on static images and extensive text to tell a story, a graphic novel uses text to relay dialog and basic plot setup while allowing sequential images to show the action of the story.
So what exactly is a graphic novel? Obviously, it's not a prose novel, nor is it a picture book - we've already established that. But it's not just a comic book either. Comic books and graphic novels look a lot alike, and as time wears on, comic books are being written to eventually become graphic novels, but in the strictest sense of the word, comic books and graphic novels are two separate entities.
Therefore, some terms need to be defined:
Prose: the written word. Basically what you're seeing right now.
Picture: any image that shows something - even an image of prose is still a picture.
Comic book: A (usually) monthly publication that traditionally told a self contained story or stories about a character or characters. Collectible, but for the longest time, considered the realm of children and social outcasts.
Graphic Novel: A book designed to tell a more complex story or story arc than what was originally possible in comic books. Over the years, the lines between comic book and graphic novel have become quite blurred, to the point that they're almost synonymous.
Graphic Novels were originally designed as the more mature version of comic books. Writers and illustrators (quite often one in the same) often like the liberation that comes with writing a graphic novel - in a graphic novel, violence, sexual content, complex adult themes, political agendas or religious ideologies are allowed free reign, unlike a monthly comic book - which has to fall within the constraints of popular culture and censors.
The first graphic novels actually came from the comix movement of the 60's when artists decided that they wanted to tell stories that they were interested in, in ways they wanted to. This resulted in a lot of misogyny, rape fantasy, violence, drug use, political dissent, sex, religion, and autobiography. In fact, Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit had much to do with the birth of graphic novels. In 1978, Eisner was trying to publish a recollection of experiences from his childhood in New York in the 30's and 40's. He was going to talk to a publisher who he knew would throw him out of the office if he called it a 'comic book'. So with a quick bit of thinking, Eisner called it a 'graphic novel'.
Ultimately, he was thrown out of the office. He did get the book published (through a different publisher), and one of the seminal and groundbreaking cornerstones of the modern graphic novel was created. A Contract with God became the go to guide on how to do not only autobiographical works, but also what sort of subjects could be examined. It has it all, religion, violence, subterfuge, skulduggery, sex, violence, domestic abuse, failed marriages, first loves, lies, truths and enough humanity in it to populate a good chunk of the five boroughs.
Subsequent writers flocked to the banner of the graphic novel: there were new talents that were redefining the genre as they created it - Moore, Miller and Smith. Old school names joined in - Kurtzman, Pekar and Gonnick jumped on the bandwagon as well. The graphic novel was forging ahead at a break-neck pace, hell-bent for leather to redefine what was possible. For Moore and Miller, it was how far you could push the envelope of acceptability. For Smith, it was redefining tropes in new and exciting ways. Kurtzman, Pekar and Gonnick all wanted to talk about things that facinated them: Gonnick was a history buff, Kurtzman was fascinated with the big war, while Pekar was basically a vicarious narcissus, pouring his soul onto the paper while others illustrated it for him.
Then something happened that nobody saw coming - mainstream comic book publishers took notice. They realized that this "new" form was attracting eyeballs. They wanted a piece of the pie, and they went after it with gusto, but on their terms. Thus the comic giant DC went through a re-birthing process - Alan Moore created The Watchmen while Frank Miller released The Dark Knight Returns. Watchmen was originally issued as monthly installments, then collected into book form after the series had run. Dark Knight was released as a book from the get go. Both redefined what it was to be a superhero. Up until that time, superheroes were moral, upstanding members of society who chased around crazy, yet ultimately benign villains who seemed more interested in trying to embarrass the hero than trying to act true to themselves.
After these two books, everyone began to look at superheroes differently. Gone were the days of straight black and white good and bad roles. Instead, there were only varying shades of gray. Batman now worked off of fear and superstition of his opponents. His villains were truly crazy, inscrutable, evil or any combination of the three. Superman was no longer the "boyscout", but was now willing to take some risks to eliminate the greatest threat. His opponents began to play for keeps, with the stakes only being the destruction of the entire world if not the universe.
Another thing that graphic novels were able to do that comics were long loathe to step away from was the superhero genre. Graphic novels were about people or experiences that normal people suffered through. The plots were ones that people could relate to. Honestly, it's difficult to relate to a incredibly cut alien flying around in spandex who can look at your underwear whenever he wants to.
Graphic novels hit close to home - they talked about things that comic books couldn't (or wouldn't) address. Even if comics address those issues, they would treat it like those torturous worst case scenario shows they used to show in the 1980's - y'know, the AFTER SCHOOL SPECIAL. where they would either gloss over it, or spin it so that whomever was engaging in non-acceptable behavior basically got what was coming to them. Graphic novels were just the opposite. Not only did they not ignore the issue, they would sniff it, realize it smelled horrible, roll around in it, and then make a big deal about it afterwards.
I suppose ultimately, that is what makes graphic novels so enticing. There is a sense of taboo and voyeuristic intrigue that pulls people in. There is something immediate about a graphic novel that demands your attention.
However, that is not the point of the question above - This long, rambling explanation was needing to be put down so that I could get to this point: Graphic novels are excellent tools for reluctant readers. There are five major points to that statement:
1) Graphic novels are not straight prose. Reluctant readers are readers (usually pre-teens to teens) that never got into reading. It could be that they cannot easily visualize what is written, or they've got a learning disability (dyslexia is a perfect example) that makes it difficult for them to read. The simple fact of the matter is this: next time you go to read a book, take a look at the construction of the book. 300+ pages, 25 - 30 lines per page, all those black marks on the page that tell a story. For someone who is not a good reader, they don't see the story, they see a struggle to understand what is being said.
2) Graphic novels are not 'picture books'. So called 'Picture books' are basically just that - static pictures with text below it to explain what the picture is. The picture does nothing to move the story along, it just illustrates what the text is saying. The picture can work independently of the text, and vice versa. While something a reluctant reader may be interested in, the stigma of being 14 and reading 'kid's books' can be quite traumatic.
3) Graphic novels have an 'edge'. Most reluctant readers want to be known by something they do, or something they are. They definitely do not want to be known for what they cannot do. By reading graphic novels, not only are they honing their reading and processing skills, they're showing the world that they are not reading 'mainstream' works. They're living outside of the status quo.
4) Graphic novels are more accessible. By combining both pictures and text together, it allows reluctant readers to better understand reading and writing conventions. Speech balloons are tied to the speaking person. When there is action in the story, it is shown on the page. From a simple wink to a thrown fist, the reluctant reader begins to understand and mentally visualize the action.
5) Graphic novels simplify things. In a prose novel, it can take up to 30 pages to explain a fight scene - more if you're really into detail. Regardless of how well you write a fight scene, a reluctant reader is going to probably put your story down and find something easier to read - say the back of the cereal box (if you can even get them interested enough to read the box). In a graphic novel, the pictures tell the story about the same fight, often in as little as a page. By condensing the action down to a series of sequential images, it makes the subject much more accessible to one who may have not looked at it otherwise.
In the end, graphic novels are a great "gateway" to reading. It creates a sort of friendly, yet non-patronizing environment that a reluctant reader will find inviting, and will want to continue to follow. Eventually, this reluctant reader may strike out on his or her own and decide that it is time to tackle something without pictures.

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