As I mentioned earlier in the week, I have been on a graphic novel binge as of late. It’s no secret that the graphic novel medium has catapulted during the past decade, gaining popularity with readers, reviewers, critics, writers, and movie executives alike. Furthermore, and more importantly, the medium has cemented its own literary legitimacy, garnering respect from these aforementioned audiences while at the same time providing an artistic environment that can cultivate the skills and stories of talented, emerging illustrators.
The three works that have made the strongest impressions on me—Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman (which is neither a graphic novel nor a graphic memoir, but it’s inclusion in this article will be made clear soon)—all happen to be by women. This fact, however, isn’t completely accidental. All three works and all three women were subjects I’ve heard about for years and have finally made a point to read them.
It perhaps goes without saying that reading a graphic novel or graphic memoir provides a very different experience than reading a nongraphic book, and such an experience has been discussed for many years already, so I will only talk about one aspect of this difference.
There are few things I love more than an effectively multi-layered story, and Satrapi and Bechdel both use the graphic medium to create each of theirs. Many of my favourite nongraphic books are effectively multi-layered, whether they are threading something personal with something universal, or relating the microcosm with the macrocosm within which it lies. But in graphic works, these different layers are presented explicitly as opposed to hidden between the lines, appealing to our most immediate of sense, thus wasting no time in effecting an immediate impact.
In as little as from one panel to the next, Satrapi can illustrate the difficulties not only of growing from girl to woman, but growing from girl to woman in Iran, itself going through radical developmental changes.
Bechdel pulls off perhaps the most impressive example of graphic multi-layering I’ve seen yet, superimposing her sexual awakening and her father’s own sexual repression with the episodes of Joyce’s Ulysses, which she happened to be studying when both events were occurring in her life.
So how does the use of visual immediacy in graphic books differ from watching a movie? Well, here is where the graphic form culls the strengths of both the book and the film: the graphic book’s visual impact, like a film’s is immediate and strong, but like a book, itstays on the page. Theoretically one can stare at a page and absorb the story’s impact for as long as one feels necessary.
Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty almost feels like a private diary of visual ephemera, a photographic journal of the observer, only this particular observer also happens to be a painter and a bit of a comedian. With each mundane snapshot taken, a reproduction in paint results, skewed and imperfect, complete with neurotic commentary, so that before you know it, there is no trace of the mundane snapshot and you find yourself staring at a Maira Kalman original.
Kalman’s book is aptly titled, because each illustration seems striving to find meaning, beauty, and silence in a world that oftentimes doesn’t stop and wait for you. Her paintings freeze time for her and for her readers, granting us the ability to determine when it’s the right time to turn the page.