Graphic Novels & Visual Literacy… in which I read frantically

It seems like ages since I’ve had something to blog about… concentrating on my writing has means that I’m reading less often, and what I am reading tends to be of the short and sweet variety, or the so well-known (ie. Game of Thrones) there’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said. I hope that makes sense.

For the most part, I’ve been reading for work. Several of us take turns organizing the semester read-along hosted by the university library, and this semester I selected Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive–which is absolutely brilliant and such a great way to introduce students to graphic novels–now, the kicker is that I am really really into the idea of teaching graphic novels at the university level, but I’m not faculty and I’m reluctant to take on a class (not because I wouldn’t enjoy, but because I don’t want to be dragged into the politics of teaching where I work), so my solution is to host a presentation on graphic novels and visual literacy. Because, not to toot my own horn, but I don’t think there’s anyone else who is really qualified to present on this topic at the university.

What I’m getting at is that I’ve been reading A LOT of graphic novels and books on teaching graphic novels, and they have been fantastic and engaging and incredibly thought-provoking, but in preparing for the presentation, I haven’t had much time to put my thoughts together into something like a cohesive blog post.

Some of the awesome graphic novels I’ve read for this project include:

Watchmen by Alan Moore – Watchmen is one of those stories that I heard so much about, I kind of felt like I’d already read it. It’s a classic and a must read for anyone interested in teaching graphic novels as a literary genre.

Epileptic by David B. – This is an English translation of a bestselling, autobiographical French graphic novel (Franco-Belgian graphic novels are the top-selling publications after American and Japanese graphic novels). This is the story of one family’s quest to understand and help a boy with a severe form of epilepsy. It’s trippy and disjointed, and very philosophical. The art and narrative styles really add to the sense of desperation felt by the writer.

Saga, vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples – The first volume in what is definitely a sweeping Sci-Fi saga, this novel is the perfect blend of sex, blood, and mystery. Trust me. If you like anything on HBO, you’ll like Saga.

Blankets by Craig Thompson – Another autobiographical graphic novel. Blankets is beautiful. It’s a story of faith and family, love and growing up, and realizing that you can be the person you want to be. There is so much subtext in the panels, Thomspson’s art and text are perfect.

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol – A YA style ghost story about fitting in and one girl’s encounter with a not-so-friendly ghost. This is a great alternative to the traditional coming-of-age in high school story and a very creepy read à la Coraline.

Then there are the theory and pedagogy books… I won’t review these now, as I’m still delving into them, but here are some quotes to feed your mind and soul.

From Carter, J.B. (2007). Introduction–Carving a niche: Graphic novels in the English language arts classroom (pp.1-25). In J.B. Carter (Ed.), Building literacy connections with graphic novels: Page by page, panel by panel. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

“there is much more to these books than superheroes in leotards and capes” (p.2).

“a good education–one bound in experience and meaning making–is probably an education that has been enriched with a broad definition of art and culture” (p.3).

“artistic experiences are important in developing literacy and critical thinking skills” (p.7).

“An important benefit of graphic novels in that they present alternative views of culture, history and human life in general in accessible ways” (as cited in Carter, 2007, p. 8).

“there is one format that covers a variety of genres, addresses current and relevant issues for teens, stimulates young people’s imagination, and engages reluctant readers: graphic novels” (as cited in Carter, 2007, p.10)

From Hatfield, C. (2009). Defining comics in the classroom; or, the pros and cons of unfixability (pp. 19-27). In S.E. Tabachnik (Ed.), Teaching the graphic novel. New York, NY: Modern Language Association.

“In sequential art, the experience of reading text is combined with the experience, omnipresent today on the electronic screen, of viewing; and, in good sequential art, the lyricism of poetic word choice is combined with the lyricism of striking visual images to create a stunning, hypnotic form of poetry” (p.4).

“reading today has become a hybrid textual-visual experience” (p.4)

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a very proud and prejudiced review

After reading Marvel Illustrated’s Sense and Sensibility (adapted by Nancy Butler and illustrate by Sonny Liew), I was eager to read their take on Pride and Prejudice. Reviews on amazon were not particularly favorable with regards to the artwork, but the cover had a look similar to that used in S&S so I wanted to judge for myself…. Unfortunately, the reviewers were right. The text is very well adapted (Butler adapted P&P as well as Marvel’s Emma); however, the images were just wrong. There is a liveliness and softness to Liew’s illustrations in Sense and Sensibility, they work very well with the text.

Hugo Petrus’s illustrations just scream classic, fanboy comic world. As one amazon reviewer put it, “Other than Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, the girls look like 80s porn stars and her mom looks like Granny Goodness from the animated JLA series.”

They do. The hair is big and the expressions are fierce, while the color palette applied to the first half of the series is extremely harsh and orange. It just made me cringe. Great cover art, disappointing story art.

capturing a classic

Sense and Sensibility is not my favorite Austen (that honor goes to Persuasion), but after re-reading it a couple of months ago, I found that I was able to notice some of the nuances of character that I missed when I first read it. I was able to note more of the comic elements and barbed social commentary throughout the novel, and particularly during Lucy’s meetings with Elinor. I gained a new appreciation for Elinor and Marianne.

That said, the holidays seemed like the perfect time to read Marvel Illustrated’s adaptation of Sense & Sensibility by Nancy Butler and illustrated by Sonny Liew. Given that SS is one of Austen’s longest novels, adapting the text into a comic book format, speech bubbles and all, could not have been an easy feat. Butler’s text manages to retain the essence of the original, while Liew’s illustrations help reveal complexities of character and plot that might otherwise be lost in the simplified narrative.

My only complaints are that a few of the characters, especially Colonel Brandon, reminded me a bit too much of the actors in the BBC’s 2008 adaptation, and that Lucy was presented as a much more sympathetic character than she was in the book.

Nevertheless, I like it as a graphic novel and can see this being a great way to engage students in a class on visual-textual literacy.