By Gwynn E. Ambrose, author at Penumbra Publishing
Way Back When. When I was a kid, I liked reading comic books. In fact, I drew my own comic books. My mom had a friend who read romance comic books, kind of like the old strip comics in the newspaper, but in color. She left some behind, and I read those, but I liked the superhero comics better, even though they didn’t have very many female characters that weren’t villains. I loved the idea of superheroes – people that could do extraordinary things for good. I went gaga over Japanese TV cartoons way before I realized it was called anime. The Japanese animation dramatized lighting and perspective more forcefully than American cartoons, and this depth and drama fascinated me. In fact, I learned to draw people by copying the style of Japanese animation. But back then (we won’t say how long ago), it was hard to come by cartoons on TV that featured Japanese animation. This was the BC/BS TV era (Before Cable / Before Satellite), when antennas ruled the rooftops. To compound the problem, I lived in a semi-rural area. Luckily I was just close enough to a major metropolitan area to get fuzzy reception of the ‘indie’ channel that featured oddball stuff like Japanese anime cartoons. So my comic books were hand-drawn in pencil on lined notebook paper, starring characters with minimalistic facial features and big eyes.
Different Mediums and Mixed Effects. Soon I ‘graduated’ to books without pictures, basically because my sisters left science fiction books lying around, which I’d pick up and read but half the time didn’t understand or appreciate to the fullest. I was in fifth grade, so some of the adult and technological-concept content was beyond my level of comprehension. However I did find there was much more ‘meat’ to the stories in books without pictures, because there was much more room for layered narrative. But I still missed pictures. Sure, I could imagine the characters in my head, but I loved art and liked to look at amazing pictures with weird perspective and bizarre lighting to highlight characters in odd and unexpected ways. I have been known more than once to buy a book just because there was something about the cover art I admired or fell in love with. So art can have a powerful effect on the reader and shouldn’t be dismissed as inferior or ‘cartoonish,’ just for kids. Comic books can have a story depth that rivals traditional novels.
Comprehending and Interpreting. Graphic stories in the ‘typical’ comic book style present ideas in a visually defined form that is instantly comprehensible. The pictures tell you what’s going on without your having to first squint and read a couple paragraphs of words. The mind absorbs and processes visual imagery and words differently, using different parts of the brain. So writing and illustrating are a bit different from each other, just as motion pictures present a totally different medium with sequential movement and audible content added – and sometimes subtitles. Words by their nature require language skills and verbal interpretation. Pictures on the other hand are mostly visual with very little language skill involved, except to read captions and dialog.
What’s in a Name? There’s an ongoing debate in the graphic novel arena over what actually constitutes a graphic novel. Some artists and writers balk at the term, because they think it is either unnecessary or is just a fancy euphemism to dress up a medium they feel is respectable in its own right without a different label. Writer Neil Gaiman, responding to a claim that he does not write comic books but instead writes graphic novels, said the commenter “meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who'd been informed that she wasn't actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” –Wikipedia.
Part of the debate is the perception that comic books are inferior to ‘regular’ literature because they are basically a comic strip newspaper style adapted to a booklet format, which by association demotes comic books to the lowest form of reading entertainment available – the newspaper comic strip or ‘funnies’ section. While comic book collectors hoard their finds, newspaper consumers line their bird cages with newspaper comic strips. Both may be printed on basically the same paper, but the comic book usually has a slick cover that is saddle stapled around the interior. And it’s in color. So a bit more cost and care goes into the production of the comic book. Plus the content is quite a bit more expanded. Whereas the newspaper may feature three frames of a specific comic strip, the comic book issue will feature several pages full of frames that serialize a short story. And usually the artist goes to quite a bit more trouble to ink and colorize comic book frames as opposed to syndicated newspaper comic strips. So where does the graphic novel fit in?
There have been many attempts over the years to coin alternate labels like ‘pictorial novel’ for books that contained narrative passages enhanced with the occasional insertion of pictures or illustrations. There’s every combination of the two mediums, from repackaged comic book content in book-bound form, to straight narrative novels with the occasional illustration. So where does one draw the line in defining what constitutes a ‘graphic novel’?
The Traditional Comic Strip. The traditional comic strip consists of two, three, or four frames or boxes that pictorially represent a scene or moment or idea. Each frame usually contains a picture drawn of characters doing something, with bubbles for dialog lettered inside. The dialog is typically very short, only a few words to fit inside the bubble. Sometimes a caption will be attached to the frame either above or below or in some other way incorporated into the frame. The series of two to four frames creates a pictorial narrative for a short-short scenario or joke with a setup and a punch line.
The Traditional Comic Book. One camp differentiates the graphic novel from the comic book by means of binding (book binding rather than saddle stapling) and story completeness, while maintaining that a graphic novel is in the same boxed picture frame format with bubbled narration. Traditionally comic book editions, while presenting an ongoing series in more or less complete mini-story, are far shorter than graphic novels. There have been many sources of content for graphic novels and comic books over the years, and often publishers of comic books would cross over to the other medium and ‘bundle’ several issues as a graphic novel, mostly to get more mileage of the same content already published.
The Novel With Pictures. My preference is to differentiation between various media based on content quantity and presentation. While the typical comic book is a glossy cover saddle-stitched around a large format booklet consisting of approximately 24 to 32 pages, a novel can be hundreds of pages and lend itself to a more complex story with many more opportunities to showcase stellar art.
I further differentiate between illustrated novel and graphic novel by the content itself. If the pictures are the predominate feature and take precedence over the narrative, then it’s a graphic novel. If the narrative, the story itself, takes precedence over the illustrations, then it is an illustrated novel. Of course this is simply my personal take. You can call it whatever you want, as many do, but however it’s labeled, the mix of illustrated story provides a rich reading experience. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
No Rules. The great thing about all this is that there are no rules. Artists and writers can put their book in any format or mix of formats that suits them, as long as the technology to mass-produce it for the reading public is economically available. As electronic book representation becomes more sophisticated, the possibilities of doing new things with traditional fiction will expand. Currently there are digital formats available for comic books, the most popular being CBR/CBZ file formats that allow digital pictures to be viewed within a software application like Comic Rack. An app called Comixology allows viewing in a web browser. Marvel and other larger comic producers have begun making their digital collections available online for a subscription fee.
Whether you choose digital or printed, a graphic novel can be a thing of awe and beauty, illustrating the mind’s concepts in a way that adds drama outside the realm of reality. And isn’t that the whole point of literature – to spark the imagination and take readers on wondrous and fabulous journeys?
If you haven’t read a graphic novel yet, now’s a good time to start checking them out. The variety of subject matter has no bounds. With graphic novels, your imagination can visit the playground of talented artists and writers to go places you’ve never been before but will surely want to visit again and again!
Gwynn E. Ambrose, author at Penumbra Publishing