In Praise of Graphic Novels

Nothing has delighted me more, in terms of literary trends, than the rise of the graphic novel over the last decade or so. They’ve gone from poor relations to contenders, containing as much life, as much subtlety, as much pathos and politics and ambiguity and comedy and tragedy, as any traditional novel.

And, selfishly, they are one of the forms I take solace in when I’m exhausted and haven’t got the wherewithal to tackle densely printed, densely argued books. Sometimes I want to be moved and astonished and entertained by stories in pictures.

Even if you have no aspiration to create a graphic novel (I couldn’t if my life depended on it), you can learn from them. What to include, what to leave out, how to leap over your obstacles, how to move between locations and between the present and past, how to jettison linear storytelling in favour of something stranger. How to look at an event repeatedly, obsessively, from more than one angle. How to unify opposing points of view without tidy resolutions.

Some favourites:

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

The first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Booker, Sabrina tells the story of the murder of a young woman and the fallout from the crime, including conspiracy theories that arise from her death and the rise of conspiracy theories in contemporary America. It’s a painful read, examining loneliness, isolation, and the follies that stem from the internet entering the hearts and minds of people struggling for meaning. If anything, it’s more topical now than when it was published.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

You probably know this one. If you don’t, you should. Bechdel, who I’ve been reading since the late nineties, started out as an alternative cartoonist with a cult following for her strip Dykes to Watch Out For. This was her entry into the mainstream, a graphic memoir of her deeply closeted father, who raised her in a tiny town in Pennsylvania, where he taught high school and ran the funeral home. An astonishing mediation on family, love, desire, marriage, sex, and literature.

Agnes, Murderess by Sarah Leavitt

And this one is even Canadian, a dark and deeply weird tale inspired by the legend of Agnes McVee, who is said to have murdered as many as fifty people in British Columbia interior in the 19th century. Don’t read it at night.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

You hopefully know this one too: it’s on high school reading lists now. A graphic memoir by Iranian-French cartoonist Satrapi detailing her early childhood in Iran and her parents agonizing decision to send her abroad to keep her safe. This, also, seems as urgent now as when it was published. And the last panel will leave you speechless. This book is one of the few experiences I’ve had as an adult of beginning to read and actually not being able to stop till I finished.