Graphic novels: Worth a thousand words and more

Dead Sea coast

Dead Sea coast. Image courtesy of xtradc, Morguefile.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how would you count the pictures of a graphic novel, in terms of how they make you feel?

I’ve read about four graphic novels and each one was so good.

I took them in pairs. The first pair was Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (I’ll call it Maus I for future reference) and Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. Both novels cover Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who is a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, and his father’s experiences in Auschwitz. What’s interesting about this book is how Spiegelman chose to depict the different people in the book: the Jews are mice, the Poles are pigs, the Germans are cats, the Americans are dogs and the French are frogs.

I read Maus I and Maus II because World War II history is fascinating to me and I loved the author’s approach of telling the story through a series of cartoons. (The Pulitzer people thought so, too. Maus I won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and was the first graphic novel to earn that honor.)

The story is brutal — especially since it describes what happened in Auschwitz — but seeing it depicted in pictures makes it even more real, somehow. When we read an author’s words, I think we form pictures in our minds of the characters and their environment in our minds. Here, the pictures were already there, in front of me.

I find it mildly ironic, in a literary way, that the “Spiegel” part of Spiegelman’s last name means “mirror” in German. You could argue that Spiegelman was holding up a mirror to his family’s past?

The second pair was Persepolis: The Story Of A Childhood and and Persepolis 2: The Story Of A Return by Marjane Satrapi. These books are Satrapi’s memoirs of her life growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, her college years in Austria and her eventual return to Iran. Feisty, funny and intense, Satrapi went through a variety of experiences, including homelessness and racism, that influenced her progress from young girl to adult woman.

I read both Persepolis books from curiosity after I heard about the 2007 animated movie and to discover what life was like for ordinary Iranians. Nobody seems to talk about that very much. (Travel expert Rick Steves did once, in a travel documentary.) We hear about a country’s turmoils and political problems from news sources, but day-to-day life for the average person gets missed sometimes. I’m of the opinion that most people are just that — people. They may have different looks or ways of living, but in the end, they’re just people. (Or bloggers.)

The most moving scene in Persepolis shows the death of a friend, who was running from a party that had been raided by guards enforcing the morality code. You see the silhouette of young men being chased and jumping from rooftop to rooftop at night. In the next panel, the last man tries a jump and in the panel after that, there’s no young man any more. It was a more poignant way of evoking a reaction from readers than a mere word-filled description.

Will I read more graphic novels in the future? Maybe. I’d like to try Japanese manga novels someday.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Graphic novels: Worth a thousand words and more

  1. Maus did win a Pulitzer Prize, but it was not for a regular category. Spiegelman received a Special Citation for Letters. The book probably didn’t fit into any of the regular categories as it had elements of History, Biography and Novel.

    I have not read Maus, but it is on my long term to read list.

  2. I still think that they are crap and for the lazy. Things are already dumbed-down enough. I DO lump them all together with comic books and manga garbage. It’s just not writing.

    Are you saying that you were brave or settled for a less than book or are you saying that within the truncated garbage there are actually good things to read? (I am always looking for an area where I MIGHT be wrong. I dislike being wrong.)

    • I’m saying that in this case, these books excelled and they are good things to read. They are much deeper and more meaningful than comic books, even though they use a similar visual method of storytelling.

      Please consider giving one of the books a try. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

  3. I’ve read a couple of graphic novels, though “read” hardly applies. None were serious, more like very advanced hard-bound comicbooks. When I lived in Israel, I went to Yad Vashem (the biggest, most famous of the Holocaust museums) once. Nightmares. After that, when visitors wanted to see it, I waited outside in the garden. Ditto for other Holocaust museums.

    Israel is well-stocked with Holocaust stuff and 2 neighbors in my building were survivors of the Auschwitz death march. My mother stuffed my head full of Holocaust images when I was young. I got it. I remember. A graphic holocaust novel? NO thanks.

  4. I’ve never really given graphic novels that much of a chance — not because I have anything against them, but because I’ve never gotten around to putting one on the top of my reading pile. From what little I’ve seen of Persepolis, however, I’m dazzled. Once I pick up a copy, it shall go right to the top of the pile.

  5. Graphic novels require a different type of reading. The illustrations are important and frame the story. Love your reviews!

  6. Interesting. I’ve never heard of graphic novels?

  7. The Maus series is amazing. The use of animals to portray people was ingenious and wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect in a traditional novel format. I have to disagree with your commenter who believes graphic novels to be junk; it was such an innovative vehicle to use in telling history that’s been told many times already and, yet, needs to remain forever vivid. Great post!

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