Monday, August 30, 2010
“After you say ‘It works’….”
Our young friend, Ed, is a passionate fan and promoter of the graphic novel. The notion of the graphic novel either as an art form or as a literary form has puzzled me for some time. Some time ago Ed twisted my arm until I read “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993). McCloud wrote it, cleverly enough, using the concepts that he is explaining in each chapter.
“Understanding Comics” cleared some of the fog and gave me a good understanding of the techniques used to make text and art work together to tell a story.
It did not convince me, however, that the graphic novel was a form that held any interest for me. I’m not a big fan of the superhero genre or the zombie/vampire/horror genre and those seems to dominate the graphic novel titles. The only one I had even tried to read was Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (several editions) when it was newly published but had to put it down – it was very well done and effective but it gave me nightmares.
Early this year I read of a series of graphic novels commissioned by the Louvre. There will ultimately be eight titles in the series. I believe that only two are published so far. The Louvre’s requirement to various artist/writers is simple – the Louvre must appear as a significant element in the plot. The announcement I read was for “On the Odd Hours” by Eric Liberge (NBMComicsLit, 2010 for the English edition). The premise, the “hook” if you will, of this book is that all museums secretly employ a special curator whose duty is to care for the souls of the artworks in the museum. The protagonist in “On the Odd Hours” is the young intern to the Louvre’s such curator. This sounded so appealing that I promptly ordered a copy.
Arnold Newman, the famous portrait photographer says: “After you say ‘It works.’ (or ‘It doesn’t work.’) then you can discuss the details.” (my addition in parentheses.)
“On the Odd Hours” doesn’t work. The drawings are very good indeed. Set among the art in the Louvre it certainly is visually rich. The hook is wonderful. But it doesn’t work. The text and the artwork don’t work well together. The graphic layout fails to convey the passage of time and space in many places (at least to me). The plot isn’t visual – it depends too much on understanding the protagonist’s situation, history, and mental state – difficult to express in graphic novel format. It should have been much shorter or much longer – the plot as presented is too short to be a novel but too complex to allow full development at its current length. I keep thinking what a wonderful short story Ray Bradbury could have written over the basic idea. Which also led me to ponder which of the Ray Bradbury short stories would be well-served by a “graphic novel” format. “The Dragon” certainly. There is a recent edition of “The Homecoming” that is already in very close to graphic novel format.
But I digress. After another long talk with Ed (who had not seen “The Odd Hours”) he suggested that I read “Bone” (Jeff Smith, Cartoon Books, 2004) as an example of a graphic novel that he felt works very well. He had to think a while to come up with one that was not a horror, zombie, or superhero plot. “Bone” is a straight-ahead heroic-quest fantasy, complete with a hapless but loveable protagonist who finds his courage, a dim but faithful sidekick, a wise grandmother, a beautiful princess estranged from her heritage, sundry monsters and villains, an evil force to be overcome and even the occasional dragon.
Ed was right. “Bone” does work very well and I enjoyed it even though my taste for fantasy isn’t very keen either. I would not have read it in a text form. It would have been just another fantasy potboiler and, in fact, I doubt that it would have been published.
Jeff Smith’s drawing style, his use of the drawings and the text, and his means of suggesting passage of time and space are straight out of “Understanding Comics”. “Bone” was written in installments over several years so I suppose that the evolution toward sophistication of the drawing style could be just from the passage of time but I think it was more conscious that that. As the story jelled and worked its way into a more complex world, so did the drawing.
OK – so a graphic novel can work. The issue with “The Odd Hours” is not that the graphic novel can’t work; rather that this particular graphic novel doesn’t work.