The term ‘graphic novel’ has, for a long time, been used loosely around the fringes of the literary society. While in the world of comics certain graphic novels throw titian shadows over the genre, helping to morph and change what has become a constantly evolving landscape, the literary world has a tendency to dismiss them. However, in recent years graphic novels have been dominating the literary scene. With adaptations of literary classics and autobiographical memoirs, graphic novels can offer so much more than seen at first glance. The joining of word and image allows creative writers and artists to paint a fully fleshed out and vibrant world, while still maintaining the magic held within books. This article will look at four graphic novels that bridge the gap between books and graphic mediums, and with any luck will spur the reader on to try a few.
1: A contract with God: Often cited as one of the first graphic novels, A contract with God contains four short stories about Jewish communities, revolving around a tenement building in the Bronx. Noted for his earlier comic book works, creator Will Eisner wanted to push comic books into the literary sphere. This was done by creating a comic of similar length and finding a reliable book publisher to do the initial release. Eisner’s work led to the renaming of the long comic book medium from ‘comic’ to ‘graphic novel’, a label that holds to this day. A contract with God shows the possibilities of the comic medium for a literary audience, as its narrative form is aided by its visuality to compel and entice the reader.
2: Watchmen: Watchmen is a graphic novel that shows the possibilities of the graphic novel medium without removing itself too far from its comic book roots. Set in a post-hero cold war America, Watchmen asks the question “what if vigilantes did begin to roam the streets?”. Through the lenses of commentary on modern superhero comics, Watchmen tackles issues such as poverty, mental health, society and war. The characters written into Watchmen are some of the most complex and interesting to ever be put onto graphic novel pages, while some of the quotes (“Superman is real, and he is American”) will stay with the reader long after reading. This is a graphic novel for those interested in seeing how the superhero genre can be turned on its head, and what happens when the threat of nuclear annihilation pushes society to finally ask, Who watches the watchmen?
3: Maus: Maus follows the story of Art Spiegelman, a young man reconnecting with his father through the retelling of his time in Nazi-occupied Poland. A touching and a true example of how graphic novels as a medium can be used to interpret trauma, Maus was revered for its expert use of panel layout, minimal art style, and postmodern storytelling to deliver the harrowing tales of Jewish people in World War 2. By representing the Jewish community as mice, the Poles as pigs and the Nazis as cats, Polish writer Art Spiegelman gives a Disneyfied portrayal of events, adding to the surrealism and absurdity that surrounded the horrors of the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s method both shocks and entices, drawing the reader into the transgenerational trauma of an entire population. Standing as one of the few graphic novels to win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus a must-read for anyone looking to transition into the medium.
4: Sandman: American writer Neil Gaiman is already a big hit in the literary world, with his fantasy books such as Ocean at the end of the lane and the fable inspired American Gods having received a large following. This familiarity is what drove him to create Sandman, a graphic novel centered around Morpheus, the god of dreams. Through Morpheus, Gaiman explores what stories truly are and where they come from, how dreams are made and how we transform those into the fables we all know. Including cameos of famous historical figures such as Shakespeare, Sandman is the perfect graphic novel for anyone who has ever been curious about what the nature of graphic fiction as an art form is, and how so many have come to master it.