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A new literary canon?

Written by: on February 2, 2010

A brief flirtation with the social mainstream courtesy of Seth Cohen and _The OC_ notwithstanding, graphic novels have never comfortably occupied a place within the conventional literary structure. I don’t think it would be too harsh to say that, in fact, among many people they are seen as fundamentally uncool, geek chic or perhaps, at best, a lovable eccentricity.

This subtle but undeniably strong social stigma affected me for a long time. I’ve always loved reading, and perhaps the author whose works I respect and enjoy more than any other is Neil Gaiman (if you haven’t heard of him then I thoroughly recommend you take a look).

{{ quote It is the dialogue between characters that gives a book its bite, and graphic novels, perhaps for their lack of need for descriptive passages, bring this element to the fore }}

However, despite my love for his authorial finesse I was reluctant to read his first work: a graphic novel series called _The Sandman_. I wasn’t reluctant because I thought it wouldn’t be very good (it has won a number of prizes including a World Fantasy Award) it was simply the fact that I was aware that graphic novels as a genre are perceived as deeply uncool and perhaps slightly childish.

Despite this over Christmas I bit the bullet and bought the first story arc of theSandman series, a volume called ‘Preludes and Nocturnes’. Immediately I was certain I’d done the right thing in discarding notions of cool for literary pleasure.

The work is fantastic, beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated, but for the purposes of this article I shan’t dwell on the specifics of that one book. Much more important is the fact that the medium of the graphic novel is perfectly suited to telling delirious stories where the only limits are those inside the author’s own head. He is at perfect liberty to stray far from the borders of what is normal or acceptable in conventional literature and move out into realms at the limit of human imagining.

So why have graphic novels been seen as uncool? I think some of the reasoning lies in the fact that they are fundamentally books with pictures; something that one hopes to outgrow very quickly on the quest to adulthood. Picture books are the realm of children learning to read and as such adults fetishise pages of lavish, wordy description. I’m not saying that this is wrong; a well written passage that invokes the senses and excites the mind is obviously to be cherished, but there is no reason why a book with pictures, a graphic novel, cannot do this just as well.

For me the best part of any book is the characters in it – those that we identify with or abhor, those whose struggles we become immersed in and those who we grow to love or despise. It is the dialogue between characters that gives a book its bite, and graphic novels, perhaps for their lack of need for descriptive paragraphs, bring this element of storytelling to the fore.

An author in a conventional book may well be able to get away with passages of less than stimulating exchanges. A graphic novelist simply can’t. Thus for me, far from the use of pictures being a childish throwback, they highlight and increase the importance of that which is the most engaging part of any novel.

I mentioned Seth Cohen and _The OC_ earlier, and whilst him and others like him have served to bring the graphic novel forward they have also window-boxed it. In television, graphic novels are the realm of geeks and socially maladjusted people. Specifically, I’m thinking of Seth Cohen and the geeks in _The Big Bang Theory_ but there are countless other examples. This window-boxing simply should not happen when one considers how worthwhile and compelling the stories contained in many graphic novels are. To illustrate this I would point to the fact that a number of highly successful and, I would argue, mainstream films, _Wanted_, _Constantine_, _Watchmen_ and many more have all had their roots in graphic novels.

_Watchmen_ in particular is a very faithful follower of its graphic novel forebear and achieved phenomenal success as a film. If the films are so successful within the mainstream then it is surely perverse that the things which spawned them are so heavily tied in the minds of many to stereotypes of social outcasts.

Hopefully, I’ve gone some way to illustrating why graphic novels should not be dismissed from the plethora of reading options open to readers. However, I’d like to go further and explain what they have to offer that more conventional novels do not.

The great strength of graphic novels is their freedom from academic and critical scrutiny. There are no set courses for them to run in, no hoops they have to jump through. They are at perfect liberty to mix the serious and the absurd, the harrowing and the uplifting, the mundane and the ephemeral and, for the most part, they do. This, allied with their unconventional comic book format, makes for a unique read and one well worth experiencing.

Quite aside from what is unique about them, but equally important, graphic novels are simply good books containing many compelling characters. From John Constantine in _Hellblazer_, an all too human, morally ambiguous con-man who fears he will “Push it too far. Get too clever” and be snapped up by Hell, to the _Sandman_, one of the “endless” personifications of primal forces who constantly remain alien to the world despite their interactions with it, the characters within graphic novels invariably arouse our interests.

It is inevitable that they do so given the necessity of their visual centrality. Both the protagonists I’ve sketched above occupy their own excellent series and should go some way towards illustrating how interesting the characters explored in graphic novels can be.

So, hopefully I’ve perked your curiosity and next time you happen to be looking for an escape from the soul-destroying drudgery of university work you’ll consider picking up a graphic novel. Like me, I’m sure you’ll find it an incredibly enjoyable read and even if not, then at least you’ll have experimented with a form of literary expression that is, if nothing else, a break from the norm which, in my view, is under consumed and undervalued.

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