Monday, February 12, 2007

An Extra Dimension

If we're talking classification - well, graphic novels may not be novels per se in terms of genre technicalities, but I've always pretty much thought of them as novels with an added dimension, and I know that translates into how I read them. I'm a fast reader, and my eye is used to scanning text. When I'm reading a graphic novel (which I've always been interested in, but I find myself doing more and more these days) I tend to read the words first on each page, 'skimming' the images, and then go back to look for the details that I may have missed. For me - and it looks like for lots of others as well, from reading the rest of the posts - the images are a way to emphasize elements that might be lost in a simply textual format, such as Jin's broccoli hair or the monkey king's superhero-esque costume. Aside from the obvious images, I love the way that graphic novels allow for jokes or extra commentary in visual details that might be easy to miss on the first glance; even if you don't catch all of them, it makes you feel a lot more involved in the story when you do notice the little things.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
(comic, not movie, which I am decidedly Not Ranting About Here) is an extreme example of this. Half the fun of the graphic novel is knowing that all the events and characters have been pulled from nineteenth-century stories, and almost every frame has some throwaway detail or other that goes back to one of those source texts. On every reread, you notice something that you might not have before, and it makes the whole experience richer. One of the best parts of reading it, for me, was catching a name or a sketch on a wall in the background and knowing what it referred to, and feeling for a moment like the book was written just for me. However, literary injokes are just an example of the way that detail work in drawings can enhance the experience of reading. A jar of on a table in the background labelled 'artichoke hearts' creates realism that sets a scene effortlessly, in a way that words would have to draw attention to themselves to do. Graphic novels aren't the only works that make use of this, either. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is marketed both as an ordinary novel and as an illustrated story, with elaborate images accompanying the text. Even though I'd already read the book, when I found the illustrated version I felt like I was reading something completely new.

So much for Why I Love Graphic Novels 101. As for American Born Chinese, I am of course going to be unoriginal and say that I liked it. The strongest aspect, for me, was the use of the story of Monkey; like Pico, I knew the story before, so seeing the way that the author worked it into the current plotline and made it relevant was kind of exciting - although for me, the superhero costume and the little 'BAM' boxes turned the story into as much a fusion of American and Chinese cultural tradition as the main character himself. (I should probably mention, however, that my Chinese-born roommate flipped through the Monkey section, looked disappointed, said "You know, that's not how he's supposed to look" and dropped it.) I really liked the way the various elements of the story all became something halfway between a bicultural fusion and a war in and of themselves, because really, that's sort of the point. I have to admit the ending hit me pretty suddenly - I'd been kind of expecting Danny and Chin-kee to end up as some warring subconscious thing; possibly I've been reading too much psychoanalytic criticism - but that's also, I think, because I'm used to reading longer-running serial stories, so the speed of ABC (everything resolved by the end! No cliffhangers or long-term hook for the reader! What is this wackiness!) kind of caught me off guard.

Speaking of serials: yes, another post from me about blurring the line, but I finnd it really interesting when online comics turn from something that goes on a strip-by-strip basis to something closer to the novel form. One of these is Scary Go Round, which I'm pretty sure started out with the creator just writing whatever came into his head for each strip, but has developed into something which has chapters, ongoing storylines, and recurring characters. Novels want to emerge from the ether! It is apparently a fact of writing. Which is kind of encouraging, really, when you think about it.

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