In the best graphic novels, words are secondary to art

The Argument

When cartoonists draw on their own talent instead of computer, stories shine


September 05, 2004|By Jeff Danziger | Jeff Danziger,Special to the Sun

Imagination is your best companion through a novel. My complaint about the graphic novel is that it attempts to illustrate what most readers should imagine on their own. You will far more enjoy your own imagination than some cartoonist's. Even so, graphic novels can be evocative -- and even fun -- when skillfully done. And they can bore one to tears when drawing or writing skill is wanting.

First, the oddest piece of publishing in many moons: In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman's consideration of 9 / 11 (Pantheon, 42 pages, $19.95). Certainly one of the heaviest volumes in your bookstore, it is more leviathan than book, beautifully printed, if oddly so -- the pages are thicker than most book covers. It was printed in China, where, sad to say, all quality work seems to be done these days.

Spiegelman's main thrust is that the Bush administration used the disaster of 9 / 11 to hijack the national direction and justify war in Iraq. This is strong stuff, and to temper it, Spiegelman summons an art form he reveres -- the old Sunday comic pages. Characters from those bygone days accompany him through the nightmare of the attacks on New York and try to explain and illustrate the aftermath.

In the last half of the book, he shows the characters responding to 9 / 11 in ways that mark our indistinct fears and shallow prejudices. Comics in the past were once highly patriotic and made ample fun of immigrants. They were also surreal lands of comic invention, so it's not too far-fetched when Spiegelman uses Maggie and Jiggs and the Katzenjammer Kids to explain 9 / 11. When I was a kid, the best comic section was in the Hearst papers in a section called "Puck, the Comic Weekly." Puck himself stood in the masthead, reminding us, "What fools these mortals be." Well, we still are.

Inevitably compared to Spiegelman's Maus (which nearly everything is by hopeful publishers) is Marjane Satrapi's biographical two-book series of Persepolis and Persepolis 2 (Pantheon, 188 pages, $17.95 each), which traces a young Iranian girl sent from her native Iran during the wars of the 1980s to live and study in Austria. What she gains in safety she loses of her own culture, not that there's anything wrong with missing Ayatollah Khomeini.

It is a story that might have been more subtly explored in prose, especially some of its more intricate points. Satrapi is not a natural artist, but her drawings are simple and evocative. She relies on some threadbare comic-book tricks to define emotions: sweat beads popping out to show fear, nervous lines for insecurity, and so on. In this form, the book may appeal to a younger set of readers, who will learn much from the story of a young girl's wartime life and its resolution.

In publishing, nothing succeeds like excess, so we now have a glut of these books, the long form of something that starts out as a comic strip and can't stop. They have an audience, however, who were once kids raised on superheroes and now want the comfort of the familiar in life's long, hard, dull stretches. A graphic-novel writer should be able to write and draw, or piece the needed talents together with other people. But drawing is almost entirely self-taught in this country these days, and writing is largely imitation of the more successful. Some graphic novelists write passably but produce clunky amateurish renderings that might be amusing for a few panels or even pages. But, at book length, they can be dreadful, repetitious and annoying.

An example of the nadir is Mark Beyer's Amy and Jordan (Pantheon, 288 pages, $21), which is certainly as bad as you're likely to see. The awful pictures and the silly writing compound each other, and without some sort of pharmaceutical enhancement I don't think anyone will find it amusing.

On the other hand, there's Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer series, the latest of which is the brilliant The Beauty Supply District (Pantheon, 108 pages, $16.95). Katchor's urban landscape is bleak and gray, full of people who don't connect much, but his story, while not exactly compelling, is so true to New York's outer borough life that I think no one has done it better. Katchor's conversations are accurately fragmentary and his drawing is daringly sketchy. He's consistently good from beginning to end. It is a great book to leave where it will be reread.

One of the drawbacks to the graphic novel is the endless redrawing of the same character in panel after panel. It would drive a normal artist crazy, but comic artists don't seem to mind. Some vary the angle and point of view to try to keep the reader awake; but others, perhaps lacking the rendering skill, simply present a series of talking heads, as if there were some latent message in that style. An example is It's a Bird, written by Steven Seagle and illustrated in uninspired watercolor by Teddy Kristiansen (DC Comics, 134 pages, $24.95), a semi-autobiography about a young man and his Superman delusions.

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