A comic turn

On the wave of a revelatory storm unleashed by a comic

When first you begin to read, you flop around from book to book, reading whatever comes to hand. With each passing decade, as the piles you’ve read are imagined around you as a small city of skyscrapers, you read with more focus, sometimes following a thread that thickens to a rope and other times frays into nothing.

You work by your university reading lists. You work by the greedy freedom from that list when you begin work. You work thematically. By country. By author. By genre. You work by language.

You rollick along as a reader, sampling and picking and pottering your way haphazardly. If you have no academic inclinations, what you read matters, but not as much as that you read. Not every book is great, but by the time you’ve been reading for forty years, you’ve gotten better – though not perfect – at weeding out the dross. You’re generally reading along the highest percentile: bracing, challenging, exceptional stuff.

Everything you know, and all the stuff you don’t know you know, you feel you’ve learnt from books. What you didn’t expect is that one day you open a book and it lets a storm in.

What you never thought was that – having never been a comic lover – that it would be a graphic novel.

willem - room

One of my favourite pictures from Willem Samuel’s comic

It started like this. My friend Willem Samuel is writing a graphic novel in six parts. He sent me the first part when I asked for it. The story is about a boy at school coming into adulthood just as South Africa moves towards and into democracy.

I was, unexpectedly, quite taken by the drawing, the detail, the subtlety of facial expression, the flights into a teenager’s fantasy world. Because I know his family, I often smiled at how, in a few strokes, he he captured so perfectly his father’s annoyance, his mother’s defeat when he  – because it is autobiographical – does stupid schoolboy things.

I told Willem’s brother how much I liked Mengelmoes (the title is Afrikaans, but the comic’s English) and the next day he gave me a hefty graphic novel called Fun House, written by an American author.

DSC02622I was glued to this memoir by Alison Bechdel in which she writes about her childhood and her father.

Unlike during my various childhood attempts to read Asterix, my eyes knew exactly where to go, what to read, how to scan the pictures. Both Bechdel and Samuel manage to draw with what appears to be exceptional simplicity, but neither skips a single visual clue in the environment and people they render.

Bechdel’s book was a revelation. I would never have been able to conceive of such depth and texture in what is, essentially, a comic.

Next I read Are You My Mother? It’s Bechdel’s second memoir, this time about her relationship with her mother. The author’s vast background as a reader of literature and psychology, together with her astounding talent, discernment and thoroughness in lifting out only that which stands in service of the story, have rendered her two books some of the finest works of literature – never mind that they are comics! – I have ever come across. And without qualification best memoirs I have ever read.

Needing guidance in this new world where words and pictures come together, I interviewed Samuel and asked him, amongst other things, whether graphic novels could be considered literature.

“Since Maus (by Art Spiegelman) won the Pulitzer prize, I think that debate has been settled. For me that question implies that comics have to prove themselves as a serious literary medium and that therefore comics are inherently inferior. It’s the same as when people ask whether comics are art. Those questions seem irrelevant to me. Comics have to be considered seriously, without having to attach themselves to some higher, more elevated medium. The problem is not that people don’t consider comics to be literature, but that they don’t consider comics at all.”

I never did. I never considered comics at all.

But that’s in the past now.

  • This column by Karin Schimke first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2014.


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  • sandra murphy on March 10, 2014 at 9:16 am said:

    thanks for this. i have never been a fan of comics – but can’t wait to get into these books !.

  • Christian Besnier on March 10, 2014 at 11:21 am said:

    On top of the great anglophone authors such as Alan Moore or even Neil Gaiman, there are thousands of authors around the world especially in France, Belgium and also Italy, Spain, Argentina, writing “comics” (terrible word) ranging form dark surrealist stories to historical sagas, from psychological dramas to adventure stories and political satires. I have always been sorry for monolingual English speakers that they have been deprived of that enormous body of work except for Tintin and Asterix which represent not even a drop in the ocean. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franco-Belgian_comics