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In Graphic Novels, the Pictures Are the Story (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 05)

by Robert C. Harvey

In coining the term “graphic novel” in 1964, a comic book fan named Richard Kyle made an insightful distinction that enhances our appreciation of the medium. “Comics,” said Kyle, “are not illustrated stories. In comics, ideation, pictures, sound (including speech and sound effects), and indicators (such as motion lines and impact bursts) are all portrayed graphically in a single unified whole. Graphics do not ‘illustrate’ the story; they are the story. . . . In the graphic story, all the universe and all the senses are portrayed graphically” [i.e., in the static visual mode].

Kyle’s point, and mine, is that in comics everything is portrayed and conveyed in the same manner, visually. And the concurrent presence in the visual mode of speech as well as action, locale, etc., makes comics what they are, a unique kind of pictorial narrative. Pictures are to graphic novels—indeed, to all cartooning efforts—what words are to poetry. Just as poetry is a kind of verbal play in which sounds and connotations evoke shades of meaning or feeling, so comics are pictorial play in which pictures lend substance to locales and mood to meaning.

Cartooning at its best is a blending of word and picture to achieve an effect that neither is capable of alone. To get yourself tuned up to appreciate this verbal-visual enterprise, try covering up the pictures in a newspaper comic strip or graphic novel and read just the words; chances are, they won’t make much sense by themselves—or they won’t make the same sense as they do in tandem with the pictures. Try the reverse, too: cover up the words to see if the pictures make any sense by themselves; usually, they don’t. Sometimes, the words make sense alone without the pictures; when that happens, the resources of the medium are scarcely being employed. Instead, the joke or the story is essentially a verbal enterprise entirely. In the best comics, words and pictures are yoked for a meaning neither attains alone.

Recommended Graphic Novels for High School

Here, arranged in ascending order of difficulty or complexity, are graphic novels that could serve as starting points for students and teachers alike:

  • The Long Haul by Anthony Johnston, as drawn by Eduardo Barreto. A caper tale set in the Old West, this book details an ingenious train robbery in the straightforward, uncomplicated storytelling manner of a Hollywood motion picture.
  • The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (whose Sin City stories inspired a critically acclaimed movie last spring). In this watershed work in the evolution of the comic book, Miller reimagines Batman as an embittered old man, who, coming out of retirement, finds that the society whose laws he had faithfully defended has become a fascist state, the very drawing style conveying a sense of Miller’s rage.
  • The Murder of Abraham Lincoln by Rick Geary. A meticulous rehearsal, day-by-day and then, on April 14, 1865, hour-by-hour, of the infamous assassination and John Wilkes Booth’s flight and death, in which Geary’s fustian artwork imparts eerie menace to the proceedings.
  • Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. The graphic novel upon which the movie was based depicts two angst-ridden girls on the brink of adulthood, unsure about what they should do next.
  • Persepolis 1 and 2 by Marjane Satrapi. In two simply drawn autobiographical volumes, this Iranian woman recounts her experiences growing to adolescence under the repressive totalitarian regime of the Islamic revolution in Iran and then, in Volume 2, her search for her own identity, beginning as an “outsider” (an adolescent) in exile in Austria and then back in her native Iran, where she at last discovers her authentic self as a social rebel.
  • It’s a Bird by Steve T. Seagle, as drawn by Teddy Kristiansen. Rendered in a variety of thematically provocative graphic styles, this is the story of a comic book writer who learns the supremacy of the existential belief that life, however short, is worth living.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman. Ostensibly a Holocaust tale in which Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats, the two volumes of this Pulitzer-winning graphic novel also examine the tension-filled relationship of a son (the author) and his father, a survivor of Germany’s World War II death camps.
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson. One of the best examples of effective deployment of word and picture in tandem, this autobiographical bildungsroman shows how the author falls in and out of love the first time, discovering himself in the process and rejecting the repressive religion of his parents.

Robert C. Harvey is a freelance cartoonist and author of several books about cartooning, including The Art of the Funnies and The Art of the Comics. Harvey was NCTE Convention Director from 1971 to 1997. Visit his Web site at

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