Comix, comic books, graphic novels: saviours or serpents?

Happy new school year all… although I always feel, don’t you, that it hasn’t properly begun until the weather has broken. (Let me not tempt fate…) Remember that the Creepy House summer reading challenge is still running at local libraries until September 15th, so you have another ten days to read your six books and earn assorted glow-in-the-dark goodies, not to mention some spectacularly stinky scratch-and-sniff stickers. (My purse has been used to store some, and I am still forcibly reminded every time I open it – thanks, kids!)

My son’s choice of six has been very comics-dominated, although Conrad Mason’s The Demon’s Watch and Philip Reeve’s Goblins vs Dwarves were also avidly read, and the highlights quoted at length. The comics question can be awkward on several levels: my inner Daily Mail shrieks that comix are not real books, and my inner Guardian worries that, as said son is increasingly drawn to more challenging stories, there are levels of violence, explicit sexuality and psychological disturbance that make me uneasy. (Practically speaking, this means that I scan his choices for “splat” – gore – and overly-pneumatic, underdressed heroines before checking them out; a process that worked reasonably well, I may say, until son persuaded his father to check out Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, a byword for sophisticated graphic horror that had this appalled mother marching it back to the library forthwith.)


Are comics real books? The debate rages from children’s books through to adults, with “graphic novels” now enjoying a grudging-but-growing recognition in the UK (broadsheet reviews, trade bookshop shelf space) that they have long had in Europe. We have, however, always made a special exception for the transcendent genius of Asterix and Tintin – the one a masterpiece of many-levelled comedy, from the simple pleasure of Obelix biffing legionaries skywards to the complex cascade of brilliant jeux-de-mots, nimbly translated by the peerless Anthea Bell – the other, in its prime, a timeless gem of ligne claire illustration and joyously unlikely plots, with an oddly bland hero defined by an indelible supporting cast, from Captain Haddock’s swearing through the Thom(p)sons’ bumbling to Madame Castafiore’s unspeakable singing. For the French, there is no debate: Asterix and Tintin are neither real-books nor not-real-books, they’re part of the patrimoine and as such it’s practically a patriotic duty to read them (and, whisper it, rather more fun than Molière and Corneille who will follow soon enough).


However, there are only twenty Tintins that can be read without either deep misgivings (Tintin in the Congo) or disappointment (Tintin and the Picaros), and for my money – and many others – the 26 Asterix albums produced by Goscinny and Uderzo together are distinctly better than the eight more written and illustrated by Uderzo alone. For the comic-starved British child (they order these things better in France): what next? For boys, I’ve not found anything in graphic novels to bridge what could well be a two-year gap between Asterix and Tintin and some very classy adaptations of middle-grade and young-adult novels. For girls – and older boys too, less action-obsessed and more open to the quirky and absurd – there is the intriguing Glister, a self-possessed young lady to whom strange things have a habit of happening (“Frightfully inconsiderate it is, too”). Her teapot is haunted by the spirit of a Victorian novelist with a dreary magnum opus to finish; her house is snubbed for the Bonny Village competition and takes off in a grand huff on a world tour; it transpires that her long-lost mother has been taken by the faerie folk and Glister must now win her back… and so on. Glister was happily read by all of this family; if some of the jokes whizzed over the heads of the under-11s (novelist “Bulwark-Stratton” is now best remembered for a Nebraska University competition for “worst closing paragraphs” – the indignity! and in no way related to the thriving Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for worst opening paragraph), they enjoyed her eventful circumnamperambulations none the less.


Glister is published by Walker Books, who surely lead the way in intelligent graphic novels for young readers. To have Anthony Horowitz (Alex Rider) among your authors might be gift enough for some publishers: to produce a manga-style Alex Rider graphic novel, beautifully pencilled, inked and coloured by established manga artists Kanako and Yuzuru, is an investment of talents amply rewarded. There are now four Alex Rider graphic novels – a compelling way into a series that grips across ages… although as such, it does give my inner Guardian pause: there’s not so much “splat”, but Alex operates in a world of calculating controllers and uncontrollable psychopaths, all made that much more accessible in the graphic novel format. It’s supremely well done, but I would recommend that parents of younger readers flick through first.


Other publishers have successfully followed the bestselling-author-into-graphic-novel format: Puffin, brilliantly, with Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl (and sequel The Arctic Incident, although it seems no others for the time being) and The Supernaturalist, and Random House with Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand. Puffin even worked a transformation on a series that I didn’t particularly like in its first, words-only incarnation: Charlie Higson’s Young Bond (multiply-bestselling in spite of my reservations, I might add). It’s an appealing premise, but I found the Eton-set part of the first book clogged with the signs of diligent research (every ‘beak’ was mastered, no ‘dame’ was missed), and the Highland-set part vapid with the lack of it. Then again, I am the kind of pedant who hurls a book across the room howling, “The Inverness sleeper leaves from EUSTON, you FOOL!” before I even reach the convenient travelling circus in the remote West Highlands of the 1930s. In graphic novel form, however, all these distractions fall away to leave a sinewy, menacing plot in a stylish 1930s palette of ochre, olive and slate.


One more hurrah for Walker’s compelling Outlaw, based on the legend of Robin Hood and with not a Disney twinkle in sight. Again, one to vet before cheerily handing to younger readers – an early episode doesn’t gloss over the more brutal facts of mediaeval punishment – but for readers of 9+ or 10+, an eternal story brilliantly depicted and compellingly retold.

After that it gets complicated. Movies (and Lego) start to open up the vast archives of Marvel and DC characters to younger customers, viewers and readers – Batman, Spiderman, Avengers and so on (I’m learning) – but the book versions of these are generally shelved in the adult section of the library, along with the Arkham Asylums, the Mauses and good ol’ Robert Crumb. Some publishers (DC imprint Vertigo, for one) apply a discreet “Suggested for mature readers” label on the back cover; some libraries (locally, Kensington and Westminster) are more diligent than others in steering younger readers away from older material, whether by shelving age-appropriate graphic novels in different places, setting discreet checks on issuing books to children’s library cards, or well-informed librarians just having a quiet word; but sometimes the adult designation isn’t to do with adult content so much as the complexity of a storyline – and if my children want complexity, I for one would hate to curb their enthusiasm. For the time being, the parental “splat” check will just have to do.


Are comix real books? As a relatively late convert, I’m in no doubt: the imaginative reach and literary grasp of authors such as Neil Gaiman or Mike Carey (in their graphic novels for adults, mind) are beyond question. Do they help or hinder reading? Unquestionably, they make reading approachable and appealing for children (and adults) who wouldn’t find it so otherwise; it’s less easy to say whether children who read comics mainly or exclusively would read more widely without them, or would read less, or not at all. Are they less profound or valuable than words-only books? I’ve saved until now one of the most extraordinary and haunting of all graphic novels, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival – no speech, no captions, no colours other than sepia; surreal, and yet indescribably affecting. Read it, and see just how much you can say without words.


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