Journeying through comics and graphic novels

The Miscellany News.

Comics and graphic novels form a unique literary genre often overlooked by readers. The delicately constructed interplay between text and image requires multifaceted talent on the part of their creators. The works of the genre range from the simplest comic strips to sprawling works with intricate stories and themes. Although I grew up reading many books in these styles, my recent engagement with literature has involved them far less often. I wish to revisit comics and graphic novels and examine my personal history with them, in order to highlight their unique power as a storytelling medium and defend their artistic merit.

My introduction to comics was largely in the form of syndicated comic strips, like “Garfield,”Foxtrot” and “Calvin and Hobbes.” As a kid, I would check these works out from the local library or buy used copies from book sales, amassing a solid collection of works which I would continuously read and re-read as casual enjoyment. These books provided me with laughs and supplemented the novels I found to be a bit more strenuous, forming a substantial chunk of the material I read. I continued to regularly read my favorite strips through middle school, which often introduced me to pop culture phenomena I would have otherwise been shut out from. For instance, after my parents got rid of cable in favor of Netflix, my introduction to “The Simpsons” came largely in the form of their comic publications. Favorites among my family members, like “The Far Side,” were a common source of connection through shared jokes and references; my grandmother still sends me images from “Far Side” Facebook groups. On this level, comics don’t resemble the masterworks of narrative found in literature, yet they still fill a role within our reading lives by giving us an outlet to enjoy something more digestible than the usual palette of novels and class readings. Although it’s been many years since I actively read these strips, cracking open a collection in between my explorations of literature and philosophy would certainly make my passion for reading feel more continuously fresh and rewarding. 

My interest in comics also led to me to create my own pieces when I was younger, both independently and through the help of how-to books bought by my parents. As I grew older and became less interested in drawing, my passion for reading comics also waned. The two-sided artistic requirements of the genre—illustration and written word—felt interlocked, and as my interest in one dissipated, the appreciation I held for comics did as well. By the time I was in high school, my interest in reading was limited mostly to works of literature and non-fiction; I saw my hobby less as one to enjoy and more as something that would “culture” me. Although I have since re-examined the way I pursue reading outside of the classroom, this period of time was noticeably barren compared to my previous interests in comics. Late elementary/middle school favorites like “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” and “Bone” receded into the background of my mind, as I viewed them as something I had outgrown. Although this may have been true of the style and target audience for something like “Hazardous Tales,” it seemed unlikely that I would abandon a genre that had been key to my reading interests for years, especially when the content was still suitable for my age.

The creative and narrative impact “Bone” had on my tastes followed me continually after my first completion of the series, and I have re-read the work in sections or its entirety multiple times since. However, I recently realized that this old habit had been absent for the past five years, even though the world of “Bone” still felt fresh within my mind. The series makes excellent use of its panel format to enable a seamless flow of action, accompanied by the emotive expressions of characters brimming with life. Readers work as active collaborators with the text in order to piece together each boxed moment through time and space, forming a continuous series of events with palpable motion that jumps from the page. This general principle holds true of any engaging graphic novel, the best of which equal the storytelling prowess of literature and the visual achievements of art combined. The notion that each frame itself should constitute an individual work of art is perhaps best exemplified by detailed manga like “Berserk” and “Vagabond.” Panels contain a stunning amount of work requiring endless hours of labor for dozens and dozens of volumes; their beauty as illustrations is admirable even outside of their use in the story. Within the context of the plot, these artworks elevate the emotions delivered by the narrative, forming a reciprocal relationship by which each artistic element reinforces and exalts the other. When combined the artistry and narrative mutually support one another in order to more completely command the narrative, yet their skill is still impressive enough to be enjoyed independently of each other. 

At the time of writing, it has been around one and a half years since I have read any sort of comic or graphic novel due school and interest in other literature, despite my continued belief in their value as reading material. I would avoid concluding with mere nostalgia or advocating for a return to particular works that I have outgrown. Instead, I encourage all readers to open themselves up to the world of graphic novels and embrace the possibilities that lie beyond their usual representation as puerile works below literature. Whether it’s something humorous and lighthearted or expansive and engrossing, comics and graphic novels deserve more attention from readers of all backgrounds and persuasions, myself included. 

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