by Juhi Singhal Karan
Is a graphic novel a piece of art or does it belong to the realm of literature? Or it is something else entirely?
With the institution of a separate prize for graphic novels by organizations such as The PEN Center and Los Angeles Times, and the commencement of The Art of Comics series by the The Paris Review, perhaps the one thing that we can all agree on is the tremendous change graphic novels have undergone through the years.
This month we bring to you five bloomers who choose to tell their stories through this particular medium.
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Art Spiegelman won the 1992 Special Awards and Citations Pulitzer Prize for Maus, an “epic story told in tiny pictures,” that also happens to be “the most unconventional great book yet written about the Holocaust.” As The New York Times put it, Maus was a book that “became a landmark simultaneously in the disparate worlds of memoir, comics and Holocaust history.” Why did he choose the medium he did? In Spiegelman’s words, “In a prose story, I could just write, ‘Then they dragged my father through the gate and into the camp.’ But here, [in a graphic novel], I have to live those words, to assimilate them, to turn them into finished business—so that I end up seeing them and am then able to convey that vision. Were there tufts of grass, ruts in the path, puddles in the ruts? How tall were the buildings, how many windows, any bars, any lights in the windows, any people? What time of day was it? What was the horizon like? Every panel requires that I interrogate my material like that over and over again.”
Mary M. Talbot, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes
Illustration: Bryant Talbot
As an academic and a scholar Mary M. Talbot focuses on “language, [and] gender and power, particularly in relation to media and consumer culture.” Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes is her first graphic novel and interweaves two parallel coming-of-age stories: that of James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who gradually descended into madness, and her own, as “the daughter of the eminent Joycean scholar James S. Atherton.” Entwining these two stories “taking place at different points in the 20th century” allowed Talbot to “explore aspects of social history: gender politics and social expectations, [and] shifting notions about ‘acceptable’ behavior.” In 2012 Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes became the first ever graphic novel to win the Costa Award in any category (it won for Biography). The judges cited Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes as “beautifully crafted . . . [crossing] the boundaries between literature and the graphic genre with extraordinary effect.”
David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp
David Mazzucchelli spent nine years on the creation of Asterios Polyp, his first graphic novel. His previous effort was an adaptation of Paul Auster’s first novel in The New York trilogy, City of Glass, “in which he and Paul Karasik, [his collaborator], didn’t so much illustrate the plot as translate its metafictional conceits into metacomics.” Asterios Polyp won the first Los Angeles Times Book Prize for graphic novel in 2009. The eponymous hero of the story is an architect whose designs have never seen the light of the day. As New York magazine put it, “Asterios’s story, as he flees his burning Manhattan apartment, travels to the Midwest, becomes an auto mechanic, and reflects on his failed marriage, is intricate and complex.” In the words of The New York Times, Asterios Polyp is “a satirical comedy of remarriage, a treatise on aesthetics and design and ontology, a late-life Künstlerroman, a Novel of Ideas with two capital letters, and just about the most schematic work of fiction this side of that other big book that constantly alludes to the Odyssey.”
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was seven years in the making. It was a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle Award, featured on numerous best-of lists, and became the focus of several academic studies. It also went on to be adapted into a multiple–Tony Award winning Broadway musical. The title refers to the family funeral business, and the book focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father. As The New York Times put it, “[a] comic book for lovers of words . . . at its heart [Fun Home is] a story about a daughter trying to understand her father through the common and unspoken bond of their homosexuality.” In 2014, Bechdel became a MacArthur Fellow, and was lauded for her ability to “[explore] the complexities of familial relationships in multilayered works that use the interplay of word and image to weave sophisticated narratives.”
Jules Feiffer, Kill My Mother
A Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist, an author of several children’s books, and a playwright, Kill My Mother was Jules Feiffer’s first graphic novel at the age of 85. For NPR’s Alan Cheuse, reading Kill My Mother was like “watching some lost Raymond Chandler film, with a script by William Faulkner.” The New York Times called it “a tribute to film noir and detective fiction,” but clarified that Kill My Mother “isn’t mere pastiche. The story is a thoughtful meditation on female identity and whether the not-so-simple art of murder can ever be defended as a moral necessity. It is a story about stories, the myths we have to create in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Homepage Image from Asterios Polyp