Friday, February 8, 2008

Graphic Nonfiction

by Steven Williams

'Sin City' by Frank Miller front coverOne of the more innovative areas where reading and comics have merged in the last twenty years or so has been the genre now very broadly labeled the graphic novel. A cousin to this type of book is the similarly published nonfiction comic in trade paperback and hardcover format.'Sin City' directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller DVD front cover Bound comic series have traditionally been made available for the more serious and committed comic book readers and collectors. Nonfiction graphic books on the other hand, even those that are compilations of work initially published in the most familiar stapled spine comic format, have emerged to appeal to more than an aficionado’s interest.

Some series, notably 'American Splendor' by Harvey Pekar and 'Love and Rockets' by the brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez are autobiographical comics/comic novels and have been produced for years, initially in a more or less traditional comic book format and then compiled into book form for reissue. American Splendor starring Paul Giamatti and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini region 2 DVD coverThe Hernandez brothers and Pekar have used facsimiles of their lives and un-moderated experiences to comment on contemporary American life and culture.

More fascinating for me, and I believe uniquely informative on complex issues are histories and memoirs such as the work by Larry Gonick (particularly his 'The Cartoon History of the Universe' series), Los Tejanos by Jack Jackson front coverJack Jackson ('Comanche Moon', 'Los Tejanos', 'Lost Cause', 'Indian Lover', and 'New Texas History Movies'), Joe Sacco (‘Safe Area Gorazde’, ‘Palestine’, ‘The Fixer’, and ‘War's End’), Marjane Satrapi ('Persepolis', 'Embroideries', and 'Chicken with Plums'), and Art Spiegelman ('Maus, A Survivors Tale, My Father Bleeds History' and 'Maus, a Survivors Tale, and Here My Troubles Began').

Larry Gonick and Jack Jackson have primarily used the comic format to present in a way that makes it more accessible and appealing to the general reader. While these two authors have a pop culture reputation The Cartoon History of the Universe II by Larry Gonick front coverthey both have inserted into their work such difficult ambiguities in the historical studies like: what is, revisionism as historical critique, revisionism as a conscious acknowledgment that the past can never be recreated as it actually was and instead provides insight into the contemporary culture that has produced it.

For the style of comic book nonfiction represented by Spiegelman, Satrapi, and Socco, comic book style nonfiction takes the form of a sort of blend of political history and personal memoir. It seems to me that this form may in many ways be the best approach for the subjects these authors deal with (i.e., The Holocaust, government repression, ethnic conflict). A significant part of attractiveness of nonfiction books of this type is that their creators attempt and generally succeed at placing history, historical events, and contemporary international political history within a reachable distance to contemporary minds. Their stories are very immediate and personal. This style of nonfiction provides it with a distinct advantage over traditional text-only books. Maus II, And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman front coverThe visual nature of the stories provides a way for authors to insert sub textual commentary and ambiguity that always exist when trying to recreate and then covey an accurate picture of political history. The visual comic styled reality also enables the reader to more easily control the flow of the story as well as take in author asides to the main story. It probably can be more simply and directly claimed that graphic novels/histories/memoirs give readers the freedom to react and then pause to think. In fact they seem quite similar to me to the storyboarding technique when planning film shooting. The pause, rewind, and stop buttons all exist within the reader's mind under pretty much instantaneous control.

Peresepolis by Marjane Satrapi front coverIn general, the work of all of these authors can be recommended for their political histories/histories/memoirs: Larry Gonick, Jack Jackson, Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, and Art Spiegelman. War’s End, Profiles from Bosnia 1995-1996 by Joe Sacco front coverAlso, there are more likely other creators of this style of nonfiction that I am not aware of but a survey of these writers should give any reader that is interested a good starting point from which to explore other works. It should be kept in mind though that this style of nonfiction contains a sometimes-subtle insertion of editorial intent as well as frequent, frank examinations of subjects and events considered graphic and/or unpleasant and obviously intended for mature readers.

still image form the film Persepolis directed by Vincent Parannaud and Marjane Satrapi

Newer Article: Joe Sacco, a notable writer of comics journalism


Older Article: John Updike, part 2, The Bech Books

Creative Commons License
Graphic Nonfiction, or the arrival of political history and personal memoir by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

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