Novel vs. Graphic Novel

The realm of narrative fiction is a mildly contested one between the prose novel and the comic book. Are the two necessarily at odds? Do they really demand the different reading approaches? Try adding some graphic novels to your holiday reading this year. 

V for Vendetta: Framing the Debate

The choice of V for Vendetta in this month’s book group has already fired up a debate about how to read comics – and about their relative value as an art form.

On the first question, the simplest suggestion came from VanessaWu:

As for how to read it, I will take Alan Moore‘s advice. I will sit in a comfortable chair, relax with a nice mug of tea and take all the time in the world to turn the pages back and forth at my own pace.

That’s what I did. It was thoroughly rewarding. The comic teaches you how to read as you go along and really that’s all you need to know – at first. Approaching it blind is and unencumbered is fun. I probably found Moore and Lloyd’s vision all the more impressive, because I had little idea of what to expect – beyond the symbolism of that famous Guy Fawkes mask. So if you haven’t yet read the book, I’d advise simply dipping in and enjoying it, rather than worrying too much about what you are getting into.

Mind you, I was glad that I also bore the following suggestion from Traffman in mind:

Just a tip for those who are taking their first foray into graphic novels/comics…Try to be disciplined and not be tempted to delve forward to look at the pretty pictures. Take it at a panel/page at a time – otherwise you will knacker the tale by creating your own spoilers.

I also found the following notes from Peter Griffin very helpful:

As pointed out, this was initially serialised in Warrior, an anthology comics magazine edited by Dez Skinn who managed to get all the top talent of the time to put out some pretty remarkable work, of which Moore’s work on V and Marvelman (the first real post-modern deconstruction of the superhero) stand out of a very impressive bunch of strips. Also, the early strips are some of Moore’s earliest professional works which makes them a bit more remarkable. For example he was still using thought balloons in his strips up until V when David Lloyd pointed out how some European comics look better without intrusive thought balloons.
V does act like he has super powers. Please try to ignore this as it’s not important.
If you’ve seen the film first, then ignore it. The book is far superior.

If it feels like there’s a difference in style between one chapter and the next few about 2/3 of the way through, then that’s because there was a gap in publishing from when Moore feel out with Skinn and didn’t write anything else for him, and obviously Warrior. DC Comics picked up the publication a few years later and again as mentioned, the work for DC was drawn to be cloured while the Warrior work was meant to be black and white. Sadly Steve Whitaker who did such an amazing job colouring the book died a few years ago and has never really got the acclaim he deserves for his work here.

Ed Hemingway, meanwhile recommended reading Scott McCloud’s “stunning book, Understanding Comics.” I took that piece of advice after reading V. I’m halfway through now, and finding it very interesting. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed V for Vendetta any more or less if I’d read the McCloud book beforehand – but reading it afterwards has certainly helped increase my understanding, and provided a useful bit of context.

Reading the McCloud book has also made me more circumspect about how I introduce the next section of this article. This time last week I’d probably have started by suggesting that part of the reason so many serious readers remain wary of comic books is that they are a relatively new art form … But McCloud pretty neatly explodes that idea with a discussion of the Bayeux Tapestry, Trajan’s Column, Aztec temples, Hogarth’s various progresses, and many other places comics have popped up throughout history. Of course, it might be argued (and McCloud would probably agree) that comics as we know them now rely on relatively modern mass printing technology – but there remains the fact that most of us are ignorant of their longer heritage or don’t take it particularly seriously. A fact that speaks volumes.

So too does the way so many people on the forum felt the need to explain how to read the comics. It was as if they were almost expecting opposition of the sort neatly summed up here by bookhugger:

I never read graphic novels. This will be interesting, I prefer to ‘paint the pictures’ myself, since I really do have an overactive imagination. Plus I have this really bad habit of just skimming the pictures and hardly bothering to read, whenever I get anything like a comic or graphic novel in my hands.

Personally, even though I rarely read comics, I didn’t find either of those things problematic. I never thought David Lloyd and the other illustrators’ pictures were somehow getting in the way of my own imagination. Quite the opposite. And I didn’t skim – I was, in fact, very quickly absorbed into the story and going through every detail pretty systematically, but unconsciously. I don’t think I skimped on any detail – but went from frame to frame, text box to text box quite naturally and without much self-reflexive awareness of what I was doing. I was just taking it in, much as I take in text-based books.

Or almost. Speaking for myself I never found myself wishing that Alan Moore had written a novel about V, instead of a comic. I did have a few problems with the story, and sometimes it seemed a little daft, but that was not a question of form. Many of the things that make it wonderful meanwhile – the shadowy dystopian Britain, the gripping, fast action sequences and the sense of claustrophobia and confusion – were direct results of Moore and Lloyd’s framing and illustration. Or put more simply, the fact that it looks great. McCloud says that comics have “a language of their own” and that’s clear from reading V For Vendetta. It’s a discrete art form, and comparing comics to novels is really a false opposition …

… Except of course, they both deal with narrative, so it’s hard to avoid making comparisons. Plus, it’s fun to set up such arguments. So. Do novels take you deeper into people’s heads? Do they offer perspectives that two-dimensional comic panels can’t? Can they go into details that would quickly become tedious when drawn? Conversely, can comics do things that novels can’t?

Over to you.

Sam Jordison from The Guardian (link here


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