Thursday, June 20, 2013

What do you do with a graphic novel?

I was telling my sister about Kings in Disguise, a fine graphic novel that follows a boy as he rides the rails during the Great Depression, encountering The Ford Hunger March/Massacre and various other situations, but saying "I read it" seemed inadequate for how I experienced it. One reads a book or an essay, but a graphic novel uses art to inform the text, and text to inform the art. One views a painting or looks at a sculpture, but that's not how one describes the act of, well, going through a graphic novel. Is there a separate word for what you do with a graphic novel? I can't think of one, but it seems as though there should be.

Growing up, I never thought of what I was doing with comic books as anything but reading them, but then again, I was much more focused on the stories than on the artwork. Occasionally, I would stop and admire a particularly well-executed panel, but to me, they were basically densely illustrated short stories. I was more interested in what Spider-Man was doing than in what he looked like while he was doing it -- of course, subconsciously I was taking in many details about the atmosphere and situation and perspective while I was skimming through the pages, and I realize that many people did and do care much more about the art of comics/graphic novels than I did at the time, but the story was what I focused on then.

I stopped following comics regularly sometime after Marvel started publishing about five versions of Spider-Man and at least three of X-Men -- I couldn't keep up, monetarily or temporally. However, in college my friends introduced me to other, independently published comics (not Marvel or DC), expanding beyond superhero struggles to new stories ranging from A Distant Soil (dystopian SF featuring some openly gay major characters, revolutionary back then!) to the beginnings of "true" graphic novels such as the Pulitzer-winning Maus.

A couple of years ago, my county library started developing collections of graphic novels, and I caught up on some classics and began broadening my horizons with new ones. This is where I found James Vance's "Kings in Disguise" recently.

Lots of definitions of graphic novels exist. Some people just consider the term a pretentious renaming of comic books, and there are plenty of publications called graphic novels that are simply hardcover volumes that bundle runs of regular periodical comics. I prefer to use the term to refer to a novelistic, stand-alone story, or at least a well-defined, self-contained arc within a series, told through a combination of artwork and words.

But again, what is it that you do with a graphic novel, to experience the story? What naturally occurs to me is "read," although that seems too limited, so I'll do what I often do and check out definitions and origins.

The very first listing from Merriam-Webster is "to receive or take in the sense of (as letters or symbols) especially by sight or touch." Huh, that's actually not very limited at all. There are about 30 other definitions and sub-definitions of the word. Maybe it's not that the word "read" is too limited, it's just that I've been thinking of it in unnecessarily narrow terms.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word "read" comes from quite a number of roots, ranging from Old English to proto-Germanic to Old Church Slavonic, mostly meaning something along the lines of to advise or consider. It started to be seen in writing with the meaning of "to make out the character of (a person)" in the 1600s, and was gradually transformed into interpretation of written symbols after that. Aha, here's something pertinent: "Most languages use a word rooted in the idea of "gather up" as their word for "read" (cf. French lire, from Latin legere)." So other languages use different words -- obviously, but coming from different roots, to describe the act that English speakers call reading. Maybe they'd be even more applicable!

I'd be interested to find out what other languages do with the concept of graphic novels. I have a germ of German and a speck of Spanish, but neither kernel of knowledge extends to nuances. Do Japanese people simply "read" manga, or do they use some word separate from "reading" that explicitly combines interpreting text with looking at art? Can any of my multilingual readers tell me?

Edited to Add:
Coincidentally, I just ran across an interview with James Vance, the author of "Kings in Disguise."
Tom Spurgeon at "The Comics Reporter" interviews him about his recent KiD sequel, "On the Ropes" (which is actually based on a play he wrote before KiD), but he also asks him about KiD:
JV: "The truth is, I thought of it in terms of a collected work from day one, and that's the way we approached it. If you look at those individual comics, you'll see there's no concession to serialization in the story itself, no cliffhangers or any of the mechanics that you see in regular monthly comic books."
When he's asked about OtR, he discusses the labor movement as well as how his characters make their decisions and realize the consequences -- fascinating. I hope I get a chance to read OtR, too.