Thursday, October 26, 2006

Can a Comic Book be Good?

Wired's resident "Luddite" is bent out of shape because a graphic novel, American Born Chinese, (which he prefers to call a comic book) has been nominated for a national book award in young people's category. His reasoning?

I have not read this particular "novel" but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here. First, I'll bet for what it is, it's pretty good. Probably damned good. But it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

"Nothing personal, you understand," he says:

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

He might have been on solid ground if he had shut up after the second sentence but he just had to go on and say that comics don't deserve equal status.

I will agree that comic books and novels are different. A book leaves a lot more to the imagination but a comic can be much more subtle. The whole "picture is worth a thousand words" concept comes into play here.

As an example, when Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out Marvel did a comic book adaptation. There is one part in the movie where the two leads are sure that stories about a nerve gas leak are false but they see some animals on the ground and put on their masks. The sequence takes around five minutes. In the graphic novel, you see the two of them, you see some animals on the ground, and you see the leads again but this time they have gas masks on. The humor of the movie is captured and enhanced by the comic. In contrast, it loses its punch when written.

I will admit that reading a comic or graphic novel is a different experience than reading a novel but I would not classify one as superior to the other. Some stories work better as words, some work as illustrations,  and some work best when animated.

Should two different forms be judged against each other? It seems unfair but so does the alternative. After Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture, Hollywood created a special category of Oscar for animated movies. While this makes sure that feature-length animated films are represented on Oscar night, it also assures that none of them will be nominated for best picture again.

That is what will happen if graphic novels get their own class of award. So go ahead and judge them against novels. Base it on which moves you the most or leaves the more lasting impression.

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