Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life. By Paul Gravett

Open your eyes to the richness of a much-maligned art form
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The Independent Culture

Graphic novels, whether composed as such or assembled as collections of comics, are one of the most interesting artistic genres of our time. The graphic novel is a radically impure form, and liable to mockery by those who refuse to understand its origins, its conventions and its subject matters. Yet there are things it can do with narrative that film and the novel cannot.

Like that other impure, but more respectable, form, grand opera, it can hold a moment pure and rich in our minds; it can tell us what every character in a scene is thinking. It can stylise movement as effectively as dance or photography; it is the home of some of the snappiest dialogue since Philip Marlowe hung up his fedora. Yet we still have to have the conversation about whether it is a legitimate art form at all.

One strategy its defenders are ill-advised to adopt is to privilege the graphic novel from literary publishers, which is often downbeat in mood and inconclusive in narrative structure, over more commercial tales of superheroes, gods and demons. Of course, a lot of DC and Marvel comics are routine slap-'em-ups, but as Paul Gravett points out, the best have a vitality in their creation of modern mythology that it would be a mistake to do without.

Perhaps the greatest of the many strengths of Gravett's introduction to the graphic novel is that he has no preconceptions about where excellence is to be found. He rates Alan Moore's Watchmen, with its masked vigilantes facing catastrophe and existential doubt, as highly as Art Spiegelman's Maus, which tells the story of Auschwitz with cartoon animals.

Gravett is keen to demonstrate how the books he selects for close analysis can change the way we see narrative and understand iconography. His close readings are exemplary studies which can spark new perceptions even in jaded old consumers. One of the reasons why Gravett's criticism is so full of insights is precisely that generosity and refusal of prejudice. It is especially relevant, perhaps, that he rates so highly the Hernandez brothers. Full of vitality, tragedy and tenderness, their Palomar and Locas are extended magic-realist graphic novels about life in rural Central America, and among mostly Hispanic LA teenagers. In an important and attractive book, Gravett's almost infallible judgement makes it possible for newcomers to catch up on a whole area of cultural literacy.

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