Images & Words
Comic books have come a long way since the four-colour days of Batman and Superman. While many comic books are still published monthly and follow the adventures of spandex-clad super-heroes, the medium has grown to encompass work that can sometime rival novels in their complexity, the quality of the writing, and their worth as works of art. The term graphic novel, coined in the late seventies, has become a catch-all word for most illustrated works, but serves well-enough especially when considering some of the books I’d like to suggest to you today.
John Updike himself suggested, in a 1969 address, that he saw no reason why a “comic strip novel masterpiece” might not one day grace the world. In saying this, Updike might have been foreseeing the role writer Alan Moore would play in the creation of graphic novels that would come to be recognized as challenging and complex works of literary art. Two of Moore’s most famous books, namely V for Vendetta (with David Lloyd, and published from ’82 to ’89) and Watchmen (with David Gibbons, and published from ’86 to ’87), are available at the Lennoxville Library.
In V for Vendetta, Moore and Lloyd create a sweeping dystopian vista that is part Shakespearean drama, and Vaudeville farce. The story, set in an alternate England led by a fascist, techno-religious government in the wake of a nuclear disaster, is principally that of a young girl named Evey who becomes the surrogate daughter of a masked vigilante/terrorist named simply V, who under the guise of a Guy Fawkes mask sets in motion a plan to force the people of England out of their apathy, and bring down the Big Brother-type government. Under Moore’s pen, the plot and characters evolve in a metaphor-laden morality play that draws on such various sources as the aforementioned Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and history to craft what is essentially a meditation on questions of identity, social responsibility, anarchy, and liberty. The impact of the book has been far-ranging, a fact made apparent by the number of protesters in the recent Occupy Wall Street movement who can be seen sporting the now-famous Guy Fawkes mask worn by V in the book.
Another of Moore’s creations, Watchmen takes a deconstructionist look at super-heroes. The titular characters of the book (including one of Moore’s most celebrated creations, the hero-villain Rorschach), evolve in a world where superheroes – men and women who donned costumes to fight crime, but never in fact had any super-powers – have been outlawed by a government who feared their popularity. Only one of these super-heroes, Doctor Manhattan (named after the Manhattan Project), possess any real powers, having been transformed after a freak scientific accident. Thanks to his super-powers, the Doctor has been able to tip the balanced in the Cold War, thereby ensuring a world of peace. The plot is concerned with the erosion of the social fabric that comes when citizens, no longer united in their fear of an outside threat (The Soviet Union), begin turning on each other. The book deals with complex notions of power and control, as well as a hefty dose of Nietzschean philosophy (what sort of impact can a single, super-powered being like Doctor Manhattan have on the world?).
However, not all graphic novels address such weighty topics. The Lenoxville Library also offers quality literary adaptations, such as H. G. Well’s The Time Machine, illustrated by Ocampo Ruiz (2007), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, illustrated by Naresh Kumar (2006). You can also find the very popular, manga-inspired series Scott Pilgrim (Bryan Lee O’Malley, 2004-2010), about a young Canadian slacker named Scott Pilgrim who must defeat his new-found love’s ex-boyfriends in order to win her heart. Finally, you can also read Marjane Satrapi’s stunning and powerful work in Persepolis (2000), which recounts her experiences growing up in Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. This black and white book, perhaps more than any other I have read, really encapsulates the medium’s value as both art and literature; it is a work that is at once sad and inspirational, entertaining and poignant.
On this note, I’ll wish you all the very best holidays, and suggest we meet again in the New Year. Cheers!