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How to make an excellent graphic novel

When I received the Superman: Earth One graphic novel, I also received a copy of Sarah Glidden’s HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS. I had just started to write that review when I found out how pissed DC was about the Superman one, so I stopped writing.

2 months later that was just a skeleton, so let me throw it out and start again.

This book is my favorite new graphic novel of 2010, so far.

Graphic novels are tricksy things. You have to understand that most comics (and most entertainment for that matter, but that’s a digression) is really meant as disposable material. That doesn’t mean that it is inherently throw away, but more that the goal is to make you to go “Whoa, that was fun!” for 15 minutes, until you go to your next chunk of entertainment.

Virtually everything we call “a graphic novel” in this business is just a fancily packaged chunk of disposable entertainment. I love SCOTT PILGRIM, I loved WILSON, but those aren’t really (to me) works that are “of lasting value or importance”

I really think that a “graphic novel” should function as a “proper” novel does — it’s meant to expand your mind, your world, to teach you something new, to make you consider something you have never considered before, and, in a best case scenario, actually change the way you view the world.

In this class I’d put, mm, MAUS, PERSEPOLIS, PYONGYANG, things like that — stories that CAN HAVE very entertaining bits in them, but add up to something past “just” entertainment.

HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS falls into that class for me — I learned new things while being entertained, I walked in thinking certain things about the region, and had several of those ideas confronted, and, hell, I even have an Israeli for a wife (of 25 years!), and I came out with some brand new insight.

I’d like to say more about the packaging, about the colors in the final version, and so on, but, sadly, Diamond screwed up my order on this one — I got an equal number of copies of Krause’s new color price guide (ugh!) instead of Glidden’s new book. They’ll be replaced by Friday (well, or they SHOULD be), but having read the b&w galley I can’t imagine that color/production could possibly do anything except improve the experience.

This was superb in all the ways that SUPERMAN EARTH ONE was ineffably shitty — it’s actually about something, it makes you think, and it has morality and justice at it’s very core. It’s the best GN of the year, by far, and I thought it was absolutely EXCELLENT.

What did YOU think?

-B

15 Responses to “ How to make an excellent graphic novel ”

  1. I agree, but you kind of imply that we shouldn’t hold comics to those standards. Why not?

  2. I’ll one up this GN! Here is how to understand Israel in the time it takes you to read this:

    It’s two kids fighting over who has the coolest imaginary friend!

  3. You’d really put Pyongyang in the same category as Maus? Really?

    I thought Pyongyang was well done in terms of storytelling and the expression of the writer’s ideas and feelings, but those ideas and feelings themselves were so shallow and narrow-minded. I was impressed with the execution, but somewhat disgusted with his juvenile grasp of a foreign (and in this case, uniquely totalitarian) culture.

  4. Can’t say I agree, at least with the nomenclature. Is “The DaVinci Code” not a proper novel? Aren’t the last works by John Grisham or Danielle Steel so? What about the last volumes in the Star Trek or Dragonlance franchises?
    They might be light, shallow, repetitive or just bad; even so, that doesn’t make them any less of a “proper” novel.

    Ditto for graphic novels. It is a format thing, not a content thing. The same way a short tale needn’t be the poor man’s novel, just the shorter one. Graphic novel means “more space to develop ideas”, but not necessarily “more developed ideas”. Graphic novels can potentialy reach for places which 22-pages constrains would make very difficult to reach; but they can also mean twice the fights, three times the splash pages, distribute the story in trades instead of in floppies.

    Besides, your mileage on what “matters” might vary. I got something worth reading about in Scott Pilgrims: hidden among the fights, pop-culture references, jokes, etc there was a story about growing up and learning to care less about yourself and more about other people. Persepolis didn’t tell me anything new, in fact I was bored to death while reading it, thinking “Ohhh clash of civilizations, oppresive religious regime, rebellious teenage; what a deadly serious, typical, important MESSAGE”. Which, I’m sure, sounds alien to many people who aren’t me and who really got what the author intended.

  5. I’m with Michael Aronson on this one: I wasn’t “disgusted” by the book, but it surprises me to hear PYONGYANG described as a revelatory work. Then again, maybe Hibbs just didn’t know much about North Korea before then. All information’s learned by someone for the first time.

  6. Adam, regardless, and despite my own (more thorough) knowledge of North Korea, I felt in Pyongyang, the author took notice of so many details around him, so much behavior, so much weirdness . . . and just failed to make any attempt to put any of these pieces together in any insightful, intellectual, or meaningful way.

    One could argue that he was intentionally refraining from connecting the dots and left it up to the reader to piece together the significance of what was going on there . . . except North Korea’s policies are well-known facts, not simple literary interpretation. The author didn’t even make any simple assumptions about what may have been factual, like, “Hmm, my guide gets extremely nervous whenever I wander off. I wonder if he may be under any threat of punishment if he loses me . . .” I just found his thinking staggeringly shallow.

    So for Brian to claim he learned something by reading Pyongyang is like saying you looked at a picture of a giraffe and learned that it has a long neck. That doesn’t mean the picture is any good or composed in an artful manner. It just means you didn’t know what a giraffe looked like.

  7. Can’t say I agree, at least with the nomenclature. Is “The DaVinci Code” not a proper novel? Aren’t the last works by John Grisham or Danielle Steel so? What about the last volumes in the Star Trek or Dragonlance franchises?
    They might be light, shallow, repetitive or just bad; even so, that doesn’t make them any less of a “proper” novel.

    I’d say they are printed in the format that novels are, and have taken the term – much like people say theory when they mean hypothesis.

    Because even if the format is the same, none of those are worthy to the name ‘novel’ if that’s the term used for what Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Kundera etc wrote.

  8. Because even if the format is the same, none of those are worthy to the name ‘novel’ if that’s the term used for what Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Kundera etc wrote.

    On this, we can only agree to disagree. For me, Novel, Novella, Play, Poetry, Art… these words describe the medium, the format, the channel; but not the quality or the weight. Bad art is still art (as opposed to, say, food, concrete or feelings), only… bad.

  9. “Because even if the format is the same, none of those are worthy to the name ‘novel’ if that’s the term used for what Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Kundera etc wrote.”

    Except that term isn’t used exclusively for just written work by those authors.

  10. Most people take “novel” to refer to fiction of a certain length, yes. Then they add, “this novel is good, that one’s bad.” But the elevation of “comics” to “graphic novel” did/does carry a qualitative weight for many. Comics were trash for kids, and the point of calling long ones “graphic novels” was to say “comics have matured, comics have grown up, comics are as good in their way as the finest literature/art.”

    People read “Twilight” or “The DaVinci Code” and, if they don’t like them, still don’t feel they’re unworthy of being called “novels.” But Brian, and others, reads a given 100-page comic and goes, “this is too crappy to call it a GN.”

    So we’ve got “comics” = juvenile/trash, “graphic novel” = art, and “novel” = either one; it’s the format. The trick would be to elevate the word comics, or reduce the term graphic novel, to that format-based, all-encompassing level.

  11. “Except that term isn’t used exclusively for just written work by those authors.”

    No, but someone was asking what makes a ‘proper novel’ in the term used by Brian.

    I also said that there should be a different name for books like those written by those authors – never said exclusively – as they should be separated in terms.
    Someone reading a ‘literary’ novel compared to someone reading a Dan Brown or D&D based novel, is having such different experiences, that I can see the want the for differing names.

    I mean, everyone knew exactly what Brian meant by separating the two the way he did, referring to one as ‘proper’, it’s just people feel slighted by it.

  12. “I also said that there should be a different name for books like those written by those authors.”

    Good novels.

  13. Brian: Can you name any fiction comics you would consider the equal of prose novels? Your examples were all nonfiction.

  14. Watchmen is a novel whether you think it’s “good” or not.

  15. Matthew:

    Good question. WATCHMEN, ASTERIOS POLYP, CEREBUS (Circa “Jaka’s Story”), BLANKETS (well, semi-fiction), STUCK RUBBER BABY (again, semi) — there’s five off the top of my head…

    -B

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