The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Warning: Graphic Post

Graphic novels, that is.  

Oh, readers.  I have been reading SUCH good books lately. And I would like to thank a man I’ve never met: Dr. Mark Sample, Visiting Associate Professor of Digital Studies at Davidson College.  A few years ago, he taught a Graphic Novel course for George Mason University. Somehow I got my paws on an assignment he devised, and I trolled through his syllabus.  If you ever teach the graphic novel, use his tracing assignment: total genius.

For me, graphic novels are kind of hit-or-miss.  Some of them I love, adore, worship.  See Sandman, Maus, anything by Sean Tan.  Some of them, though, I find lacking.  I would rather read them in novel format, where there's a bit more ability to delve into character, or nuance...  See the Fables series (which I really wanted to love), Lost Girls, V for Vendetta, etc.  And I just can't do manga.  I've tried, but I just don't dig it.  

So like I said, I read Sample's syllabus and tossed it in a file somewhere.  Found it again a few weeks ago in a frenzy of paper-purging.  Read it, thought it looked interesting, and requested a few titles I didn't recognize from the local library.  OH MY LORD.  I love the books, and I want to take this defunct class.  Do you think Dr. Sample wants a weird fan letter from a fellow English teacher he's never met?  Because that would not be creepy. At all.  

Before we get to the graphic novels themselves, let me recommend Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a great primer on why graphic novels are more complicated than *merely* a run of pulp comic books.  McCloud discusses the history of the art form, the best way to read it (as art, as well as narrative), and the vocabulary.  It's an easy-to-read comic format, and it's engagingly written.  Absolutely a must-read if you're interested in the format beyond the occasional perusal of Betty & Veronica.

1) Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (no, really, that's how you spell it.  I swear.)

Asterios Polyp is a sonofabitch disgraced architecture professor who has screwed up his marriage and his job with his ego and his libido.  The book opens with his derelict apartment getting hit by lightning.  And it only gets cooler from there. The story is fascinating and multi-layered and would make a really interesting novel in itself.  Polyp has some serious identity issues stemming from the circumstances surrounding his birth: he had a twin who died at birth.  Sometimes he wonders if he stole his twin's life.  The twin makes occasional appearances, both thematically and artistically, and acts as a touchstone for Polyp's journey of self-discovery.

Then, as it's a graphic novel, you add artwork to the already stellar narrative!  One thread of the story is that each human being is the star of his or her own narrative, and thus sees the world differently: not a new idea.  But Mazzucchelli takes this trope and illustrates it beautifully, allowing the reader to visually pick out when one character falls into (or out of) sync with another.  Here are two panels from when Polyp meets his wife:
Note how in the first panel, his environment is shown in clean-lined blue and hers in cross-hatched red, even to the background of the brink mantel.  As their relationship continues, even just into the second panel, the two styles begin to merge as they engage with one another.  As the reader watches their marriage develop, and then dissolve, the stylistic variations underline the emotional tension of the scene.  

There are wordless sections that seem to underline how Polyp is feeling, but indicate that perhaps he is not conscious of his own process.  As if the lack of words in the graphic panels is a parallel to his inability to to self-recognize.  In short, it's pretty amazing.  It's a good read on its own, but has such artistic merit that it's worth reading (or re-reading) McCloud first, so as to pay attention to the art.
Less artistically impressive (at least as far as graphic-novels-as-art-form goes), but still totally awesome is

2) Mike Carey's The Unwritten series.  He has also written the Felix Castor novels (exorcist in modern-day London) and The Girl with All the Gifts (my recent zombie ants review).  He's pretty spiffy and I like how his brain works.  In The Unwritten series, Carey takes A.A. Milne, Harry Potter, and a healthy dash of literary criticism, and tosses 'em all in a blender.  The results are delicious.

Tom Taylor is the son of a gifted and prolific writer whose works have taken the world by storm.  Years after his father's mysterious disappearance, Tom ekes out a living on the coattails of his father's fame, signing books and charging for autographs.  He is, after all, the namesake of his father's famous creation, boy wizard Tommy Taylor.  Naturally, weird magicky things being to happen, and suddenly we the readers are confronted with Tom's essential identity crisis:  is he, indeed, Tommy Taylor, boy wizard?

While readers might first recognize the influence of J.K. Rowling, this series also has definitive ties to A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh.  Milne's son Christopher (Robin) was tormented at school and grew to hate the books that had made him famous.  Our protagonist here is equally dismissive of the stories that provide his livelihood, despising the fans even as he makes a living from them.  

What makes this series more interesting than your average "something magic this way comes" is how very self-aware it is.  It's full of meta-literary criticism about the nature of narrative, the art of storytelling, and the traditional conflation between character and muse/writer/actor.  Because these characters are fighting over narrative.  Stories are all that matter.  Life truly does imitate art, in that places are only remembered in song or in story.  Strength is only accumulated through collective belief; if enough people believe a person or place is powerful, that person/place becomes powerful.  It's a fascinating idea, and one is addressed in a fresh, engaging way in this series.  The series creators are critiquing and highlighting the process of making literature while making literature themselves.  It's lovely. 

I haven't gotten through the entirety of the series (apparently someone else in my library system is reading this, too.  The nerve!), but I can only hope that it continues to be as insightful, as entertaining, and as clever as it is right now.  Tommy Taylor, I think I love you.

But most of all, Dr. Mark Sample, I love you, wherever you are.

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