Graphic Narratives Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Graphic Narratives

Aimed primarily at adults, graphic narratives present fiction and nonfiction featuring complex plots and serious themes in a comic-book format. One of the first adaptations of literature to a graphic narrative format occurred in 1941 when Albert Kanter launched the Classics Comics series, later renamed Classics Illustrated. With graphic versions of such diverse classics as Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1820), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1600–01), Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866), and Homer's The Iliad, the series flourished in the United States from 1941 through 1971—when the publisher stopped reprinting old titles. In 1990 Berkley, First Publishing, and Classics Media Group revived Classics Illustrated; other publishers and writers have produced similar types of works. Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, for instance, adapted Paul Auster's City of Glass (1985), and Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz have collaborated on graphic versions of numerous works by Franz Kafka. Proponents of graphic narrative adaptations argue that such material will promote cultural literacy by introducing adolescents to works they might not otherwise read. Detractors contend that graphic versions oversimplify the original's content and discourage people from reading.

Writers and illustrators have also developed original fiction and nonfiction works in the graphic narrative format. Distinct from traditional comic books in their subject matter and level of thematic complexity, graphic novels—which appear as serials, collections, or in single volumes—usually feature numerous, highly-developed characters interacting in a complex plot within a naturalistic setting. For instance, the series Love and Rockets, drawn and written by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez, emphasizes rural Central Americans dealing with conflicts between capitalist and communist forces. The series also deals with the personal trials of Hispanic Americans living in barrios. Other works in the genre, such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen (1987), feature superheroes but depict them in a realistic setting and treat them in a sophisticated, revisionist manner. As Russell Schechter has argued, Watchmen "through its reflexive, comic-within-a-comic structure,… deconstructs—verbally and visually—50 years of comic book conventions." Nonfiction graphic narratives include Larry Gonick's The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990) and The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994), which treat world history from the Big Bang through the decline of the Roman Empire; Joyce Brabner and Tom Yeates's Flashpoint (1989), a journalistic account of the Central Intelligence Agency's attempt to assassinate Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan contra; Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack's Our Cancer Year (1994), a memoir of Pekar's struggle with cancer; and Joe Sacco's Palestine (1994), an account of his visit to the West Bank in the early 1990s. Commenting on Maus: A Survivor's Tale II (1991), Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic narrative about the Holocaust, James Colbert wrote: "It is, indeed, unusual to think of authentic novels as having pictures. The notion is so new that, although comics are an indigenous, truly American art form, we haven't even figured out what to call such works. Comic book seems diminutive, even pejorative. A graphic novel seems like something Madonna would write. But lest we forget, the other definition of novel is 'new and not resembling something formerly known or used; original or striking, especially in conception or style.'"