One Small Step for Graphic Novels

M. Lynx Qualey
November 26, 2012
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Last week, two graphic novels (or one graphic novel and a…graphic memoir?) made it to the UK’s Costa Book shortlist, setting off a wave of strong reactions. Joff Winterhart’s Days of the Bagnold Summer was shortlisted in the “novel” category and Mary and Bryan Talbot made the the “biography” shortlist for Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

Reactions have ranged from “about time!” to “separate category!” and indeed, it seems a difficult task for the Costa judges to weigh the works against one another. In any case, it’s an exciting moment for the genre. It was, after all, not long ago that Anglophone comics were considered a childish treat. (Some adults did visit the comic-book stores, but those adults were winked at for having childish tendencies.) That attitude has not entirely disappeared: Only a few months ago, my mother saw me reading Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro while on a visit. She shook her head in surprise over how a serious person like me could be reading a mere comic.

I did not read comics as a child, other than those pablum things in the newspapers. I didn’t know about Asterix or TinTin, and I’m sure I was thoroughly taken up with society’s view that comics were neither serious nor worthy works of literature.

It took Joe Sacco’s Palestine to awaken me to the possibilities of graphic novels. When I initially assigned both Sacco and Marjane Satrapi to students at the University of Minnesota, I considered it a gift to the undergrads, a handful of candy. But the muhajibbas in the class, or women who wore hijab, were so tenacious in decoding Satrapi’s visuals that I had to fall back with surprise. And perhaps the critical skills students practiced here even spilled over into the word-only books.

I still consider graphic novels candy. I am currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies — also on the Costa shortlist — and Rashid Boujedra’s Barbary Figs. I’m enjoying both, but when Zeina Abourachid’s graphic novel Game for Swallows came in the mail last week, I immediately set the word-books aside and devoured Swallows in a sitting. Mm, frosting!

Even though I find them to be sugary and wonderful, I don’t doubt their powers. Even more than Sacco, it was eye-opening to see the ways in which Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro could lay out the corruption in Mubarak-era Egypt in such plain terms. Indeed, it was so plain that the novel was removed from shelves and al-Shafee fined. It is still not available in Egypt.

The major downside of graphic novels, as I see it, is that I can’t draw. Otherwise, I would be eager to see one win the Booker, and the (US) National Book Award, and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and the Goncourt. I am still an old-fashioned sort who considers word-only novels my carbohydrates, protein, veggies, and fruits. But it’s lovely to see more graphic novels flourishing, finding their feet, and nudging the edges of what’s possible.

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