The power and the fury of the graphic novel
Comic-book adaptations have long been a mainstay of Hollywood, but when executives moved way from the generic caped crusaders and started drawing on the more aggressive, darker genres on the graphic-novel shelves, they must have been wondering why they hadn’t hit these cash cows up much earlier. Sin City, 300 and Road to Perdition all punched well above their weight at the box office.
One of the most powerful writers in this vein is Frank Miller, the man behind Sin City, 300 and some of the best Batman graphic novels. He may have lost a few fans with his recent tirade against the Occupy protesters – “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America” – in a vindictive piece on his blog that would perhaps be more suited to the streets of Sin City. This is unlikely, though, to diminish him in the eyes of the people he has made the most money out of – Hollywood.
This point was made by Rick Moody in the Guardian, in a piece where he also attacks Hollywood’s output as “a mindless, propagandistic (or ‘cryptofascist’) storytelling medium” – no argument here. Where Moody goes off the rails is where he claims “comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously”. That’s a mighty big brush he’s tarring with.
Perhaps Moody draws a distinction between comic books and graphic novels, which is about as straightforward as arguing about what is a worthwhile film, and what is merely a piece of Hollywood cryptofascist propaganda.
Graphic novels are every bit as powerful and engaging as their wordier, pictureless colleagues. They bring a cinematic edge to literature, create an accessibility that it would be foolish to dismiss as puerile, and open up good writing to a much wider readership who might otherwise not engage with a straightforward novel. They also allow a writer a whole other level of creative freedom and offer a collaborative process where writers, illustrators, inkers and letterers are working in tandem to create something complete, satisfying and deeply meaningful.
If novels are the standout solo acts, with a little production help from editors and trusted advisers, then graphic novels have the potential of a full band, playing out of their skins towards a common artistic goal.
When I was a teenager – Miserable music! Miserable clothes! Long hair and scowly looks! – few books had a greater impact than those of Neil Gaiman, and his Sandman series in particular. Here was a devilishly creative and inventive storyline, with characters that dwelled in the shadowlands between the mystical and the gutter. The kernel of his plotline, that the universe ticked along nicely thanks to seven Endless beings who were neither humans nor gods but simply were, felt revolutionary. The characters themselves – Death, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Delirium, and Despair – seemed more accurately drawn, in the figurative and emotional sense, than nearly any other characters I had encountered in mainstream novels.
It didn’t hurt that Death, rather than being a grim reaper, was an effortlessly fun hip and cool goth girl that every grunge or metal-loving teenager would want as their friend. Teenagers are obsessed with death, so Gaiman took the concept, personified it and made the result sunny, bright and attractive, removing the morbidity and some of the mystery, especially in his spin-off edition, Death: The High Cost of Living. It’s uplifting and considerate, and will strike a chord with most people struggling to understand themselves and who are perhaps getting to grips with big ideas for the first time.
Gaiman is not afraid of big ideas, and in the series, and his other works, he introduces elements of philosophy, theology and history, and while he uses magical realism, there is a real heart to this writing. Art Spiegelman’s work is more direct, and proof incarnate that you don’t need to use a words-without-pictures format to deal with the most serious of topics.
Maus is one of the finest books ever written about the Holocaust. It is the biography of Spiegelman’s Polish father, starting with his life at home, the time he spent in concentration camps, and his later years in New York. In it, the Nazis are depicted as cats and Jewish people as mice. It took 13 years to write, is the only comic to ever win a Pulitzer prize, and was published in two volumes, in 1986 and 1991. On the 20th anniversary of its publication, Pantheon Books released a companion to the books called Meta Maus, including further illustrations, explanatory material and video footage of Spiegelman interviewing his father.
Maus is not an important graphic novel – it is one of the defining works of documentary art of recent decades.
The impact of Maus has been far reaching, but there is another graphic novel that, even if you have never read a comic in your life, you may still have seen its influence in recent weeks, without quite realising it. It is on the pages of newspapers and magazines, and on nearly every television news bulletin – and it leads us neatly back to the Occupy protesters who have so enraged Frank Miller.
One symbol has come to tie together the Occupy protesters across the world, and it’s an image that, as newspapers start churning out their year-in-review articles to fill the empty pages between Christmas and New Year, editors will no doubt turn to in their droves: the elegant, eerie white mask that hundreds of thousands of Occupy protesters have adopted. It’s a strange and odd symbol, seemingly blank of meaning but at the same time desperately menacing. The emptiness of it seems to crack its knuckles in a leering way; looking at that mask on droves of people, with its unflinching, intimidating stare, there is only one conclusion – change is coming, but quite what will happen next is anyone’s guess.
Many commentators have linked it to Guy Fawkes, and that is its original inspiration. But the mask is a key piece of symbolism from one of the most vital comic books of the last few decades, one that drew on the ideas in books such as George Orwell’s singular Nineteen Eighty-Four and took them a step further, a comic book that envisioned a police state in Britain, controlled by an authoritarian government that is overly reliant on surveillance and a central computer system to keep a check on a largely passive populace.
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore was made into a terrible film, but don’t let Hollywood’s destruction of its ideas dilute the potency of the original book. The book was published between 1982 and 1985, and its astonishing to see how, first of all, so many of his outlandish ideas have become almost everyday realities, and secondly, how the imagery he created, together with illustrator David Lloyd, have leaked into today’s culture of protest, dissent and upheaval, of a demand for change and a better way of organising society.
Moore gave a recent interview to the Guardian, but rather than appear to rush to the barricades, he comes across as someone quietly pleased that a book as profound as V for Vendetta is making its presence felt in a way that perhaps neither he, Art Spiegelman nor Neil Gaiman could ever have imagined.