In Praise Of: Graphic Novels

28th Nov 2012

Graphic Novels

The best graphic novelists are masterful in carving plot and narrative arch, and developing characters with psychological depth. This hybrid-form is captivating in its ability to merge words and graphics in original and arresting ways, illuminating new perspectives and leading us into fresh territory.

Seriously talented and exciting women writers are becoming increasingly prominent in the graphic novel market with writers like Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel, Karrie Fransman, Posy Simmonds and Nicola Streeten all taking a sturdy foot-hold. The work they’re producing is powerful, evocative and is gripping cross-generational audiences.

This prominence is in contrast to the closely- associated comic-book genre; although the latter has some exceptional female talent, it’s also famous for being heavily prejudiced against women. The latest example of this prejudice is comic-creator Tony Harris’ misogynist rant.

In a market that is so closely linked to the male-dominated comic-book genre, the work these women are producing is even more significant. They’re disseminating narratives about women and their lives; they’re carving out vital cultural space for us.

Alison Bechdel is one of the genre’s superstars. Bechdel is an American cartoonist who created the 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For. Her graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are critically-acclaimed on an international scale.

Dykes to Watch Out For popularised her all-important Bechdel Test; a simple rule which asks the following three criteria of a narrative:

(1) Does it have at least two women in it, who
(2) talk to each other about
(3) something besides a man?

While The Bechdel Test was originally designed for film critique, it can be used to highlight discrimination across narrative in all mediums. Bechdel’s agenda is crucial; she is challenging the cultural tendency to create and disseminate male narrative predominantly.

Fun Home is one of my favourite graphic novels. The novel traces the author’s relationship with her father, investigating her own sexuality, gender-orientation, suicide and family dynamic. Bechdel also reveals her own intense relationship with literature and its incredible ability to develop and enhance our psychology.

Her younger self is expertly characterised with honesty and depth, revealing the author’s ability to excavate the complexity of the human condition, and she explores sexuality in a sharp, engaging and intellectual style. The narrative is non-linear which beautifully reflects the way in which memory itself is recollected; Bechdel describes it perfectly as ‘a labyrinth’.

Her graphics are intricate and express aspects of her life with humour and poignancy.

Marjane Satrapi is another a big voice in this market. An internationally acclaimed graphic novelist, her work includes Persepolis (which won the Angoulême Coup de Coeur Award) and Persepolis 2, Chicken With Plums and Embroideries.

Satrapi is most famous for her Persepolis novels; these are memoirs of the author’s childhood and adolescence. Satrapi grew up in Tehran and the first novel depicts her childhood in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Her black and white illustrations are highly evocative, simultaneously painful and witty, and give an intricate inside perspective on life in Tehran during such political upheaval.

Persepolis 2 is an expertly crafted sequel which traces Satrapi’s life as a high school student in Vienna and her later return to Iran. The novels are excellent examples of the Bildungsroman genre and confirm Satrapi’s innate ability to create characters that jump from page.

Embroideries is rich in cultural nuance. Its premise is simple – after dinner, the men depart and the women talk – but its content is fertile. You feel privileged to be allowed into the secret world of these Middle-Eastern women, their private lives, their responses to sex, to men and love.

Satrapi’s illustration is vivid and layered with expression. This is also great read for teens; these characters offer an important, educational and matrifocal insight into the adult world.

Satrapi’s 2006 graphic novel Chicken With Plums is a poignant examination of love; intense, over-whelming love haunted by regret. Set in 1950s Tehran, it tells the story of Nasser Ali Khan, one of Iran’s most gifted tar players. When his beloved instrument is deemed irreparable, he turns his back on the world. Satrapi tells Nasser Ali’s story through beautifully constructed flashbacks, pacing the narrative with extraordinary skill until its final dénouement.

The contributions these two incredible women have made to the genre are crucial in creating a space for more women writers who also celebrate a focus on female perspective and address imbalance in narrative viewpoint. These exceptionally talented women are using the genre to disseminate history, old and new.

This, coupled with the fact that the graphic novel is such an intense reading experience akin to opening a door on a new world and falling in, makes the adult graphic novel a truly captivating genre.

Have you read any of these award-winning graphic novels? What did you think? Who do you recommend for lovers of visual literature?

Kate Kerrow

(Image by vblibrary)