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Learning to read comics


All I know about comics is why I’ve never liked them. They’re so full of visual information  they make my eyes judder in their sockets. Complete overload. Until recently, I felt so overwhelmed by them that I couldn’t muster the energy required for the combination of verbal and visual decoding they require.

I asked Willem Samuel, author of Mengelmoes, to help me understand that allure of comics.mengelmoescover

Is “graphic novel” just a fancy way to say “comic” – is it intended to edify the concept beyond the perhaps “trashy” throw-away idea conjured by the word “comics”?

The use of the term graphic novel is an attempt to defuse the prevailing idea that comics are, like you said, trashy, cheap and only for children.  Heading into the 80’s, comics with much more serious and adult content emerged, and they demanded recognition. Comics like Maus, The Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns forced people to rethink their ideas about what comics were and what kind of stories and subjects the medium was able to handle.

I personally sometimes shy away from using the word graphic novel, because it has a bit of a highbrow whiff to it. To tell people I am a graphic novelist sounds very pompous to me. But then again, people at least understand what I mean. When I say I am comic artist people either assume that I am a cartoonist (like Zapiro, and yes, there is a difference between what he does and what I do) or worse, that I am a stand up comedian. The word comic intrinsically implies that something is funny  and that it should be taken lightly. You can understand why people seek different terminology. “Comics” are simply an inadequate name for sequential art and is descriptive of only a very small part of the whole, yet it seems to have stuck for now.

Lately, I just tell people that I’m a writer, so that I don’t get weird requests like, “Tell me a joke,” but rather, “What do you write about?” The fact that I use visuals to tell my stories is only a matter of style, really.

Do you have to be “trained” into graphic novels – as I clearly was not – and be exposed from a young age to “get” them?

You need to know what is out there and to discover what suits you as a reader. Comics are just like books in that there are certain genres, styles and writers, and some appeal to you and others don’t. There are comics for kids and some for grownups. Some artists and writers you have to “get into” and others you learn to appreciate over time, and the more you read the better – exactly the same with books. So yes, in a way you have to be trained – but there’s nothing you have to “get.” If someone tells you they don’t “get” books, you would simply think that this person needs some help getting introduced, and not because there is an intrinsic problem to books.

Can graphic novels be considered literature?

MausSince Maus won the Pulitzer prize, I think the debate has been settled, for those who want to still argue that point. For me that question implies that comics have to prove themselves as a serious literary medium and that comics are inherently inferior. It’s the same as when people ask whether comics are art.

Those questions are irrelevant. 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.

(Willem opted to answer the next two questions together.)

Apart from the obvious, how are graphic novels different to novels without pictures? My judgment  has always been that they must, of necessity, be more superficial in theme, because there are  fewer words. But I realise that this probably has to do with my preference for the verbal over the visual.

What, in a graphic novel, is more important: the words or the pictures? I don’t really understand how they’re supposed to work together. Please explain the relationship as best you can.

Comparing comics to movies would be a lot more constructive than trying to compare comics to novels. As with movies, comics mix a combination of many disciplines into one. You need relatable characters, a good plot and a story line. You need engaging visuals and special effects. You have to set the mood and pick your angles. As a comic writer, you are the director, the set builder, the writer and the camera operator. Any decent comic is not just pictures with words added – it’s a visual journey where art, script, speech bubbles and frames all work together to form a singular experience.

And as with movies, not all comics are action films. There are documentaries, comedy, satire, noir, horror, and yes, even philosophy.

With regards to letters vs pictures: Remember, that letters are essentially pictures, and that when you read, you are deriving meaning from these pictures, or symbols – depending on how they are ordered. Reading a comic page is no different, as you would read each picture after another and, in your mind, start to combine them to form a story. The idea of words vs. pictures becomes arbitrary in comics, because just as you would read the number nine, for instance, you would “read” a happy face, or “read” a character’s body language. There are plenty of comics with no text, but that does not mean the reader is simply “looking” at the pictures one by one: the reader is reading the frames in order, which reveals a story.

How do you know if graphic novel can be considered good? Let’s imagine I’m in a book shop and I see one and I have no external points of reference, no reviews, no Google on hand to guide me. What should I be looking at?

Again…treat it like you would a book. How would you buy a book in a store? If you truly knew nothing about books, I guess you would have a tough time… and probably go to the comics section. That’s what I do.

A mistake I frequently make is to buy a comic book on the basis of the artwork – because great art means nothing if the story is trite and, in the end, the art also loses it’s appeal. But I have started reading comics where I thought the art was okay, and then the art really grew on me because the story was so awesome. So, comics are all about reader experience. Does it flow? Does in engage you? Would you like to know more? So, read page one. If you feel like reading page two, then read that also, and when you feel like you don’t want to stop, then you can buy it. The end is no guarantee, but that’s the way with all books.

There is no  hidden secret to finding good comics – although comic shops are notoriously unfriendly and having everything wrapped in plastic makes for a very frustrating browsing experience – so I’m not sure if the industry is helping itself. But mostly I discover the best comics via friends.

I doubt I’m going to make up for the holes in my graphic novel education by reading Astrix and Tintin (frankly – though I know that you and a host of other people will probably want to beat me over the head with a handful of comics when I say this –  I find them a bit silly). Where do you recommend I go next with my newly awakened hunger?

Yes, you will get beaten over the head, just like people who say that classical music is boring or that they can draw better than Picasso.

I think you expect Tintin to be something that it isn’t. Just because a comic is considered great, will not mean that you will get the same thrills from it as when you read a novel. Comics provide a different experience, and that is also why I’m trying to undermine the comparison to literature, because you cannot trade your books for comics. Comics need their own special time and place, and hopefully a bookshelf too.

Will Eisner (one of the earliest cartoonists to work in the American comic book industry) said that he preferrred his comics in black and white, because they read much more like text. Colours, for him, were just distracting. So, I would suggest you start with comics that are simply drawn, with good stories. But first, in order to educate yourself, you must read:

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Jerusalem by Guy Delisle

Blankets by Craig Thompson

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman 

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (This one was taxing, but it’s fantastically illustrated and very, very sad.)