ByBrian Primm, writer at Creators.co
Trying to write things that seem intelligent. Twitter: @brian_primm
Brian Primm

When it comes to #graphicnovels and the comic book industry, superheroes tend to run the show. In most mainstream comics, subjects that often spark the most discussion centre around super-villain persona, narrative patterns, origins of stories, or the hidden metaphors behind superhero tales. Graphic novels, however, tend to use different tensions in order drive a story along. While these graphic novels can be fun and entertaining to read, the great ones are those that have something controversial to say — the stories with purpose, that expose historical and societal tensions with more meaning and real-word significance.

The graphic novel engages readers in a completely different way than a book, movie, or a play can. In these literary works, the writer depends on the reader to participate with them. Thus, they present the reader with the opportunity to create their own interpretations of what's happening and what is being discussed between the panels. It’s this intimacy that allows authors to share personal accounts of pain, crises in sexual identity, growing up, and explore topics that truly matter to us all.

The Art Of War And Relatability

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a story that could not exist outside of a graphic novel. Spiegelman attempts to use Maus as a way to tell his father, Vladek Speigelman’s story of how he survived the Holocaust. Although this is the driving plot of Maus, this isn’t really what Spiegelman is using the graphic novel for. Maus is about a son trying to connect to what his father went through in the Holocaust, and the fact that he can’t truly understand that struggle means he feels guilty. Speigelman uses the graphic novel presentation to create a disconnect between reader and story, while strengthening a connection between author and reader. Spiegelman uses mice for the Jews, and the Nazis are depicted as cats. Thus, it becomes harder for the reader to connect with characters because of their anthropomorphic depictions.

In the panel where a German cat soldier throws a little mouse against a wall, there's little emotional impact: It’s a mouse being killed by a cat. It dehumanizes the character. Art is depicting his disconnection with his father’s tragic story to the reader, and shows his need to sympathize with his father throughout the novel. As Art is talking to his wife, he states:

“I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.”

Art isn’t looking to add another Holocaust story to the art form. He’s telling a much different story. It’s one of a son who can’t measure up to his father, and surviving a life that would never have as much meaning. He’s presenting something only graphic novels can: a Holocaust story focusing on an artist who will never truly understand what that means. With his divisive story, Spiegelman created an emotional graphic novel that resonated with audiences trying to empathize with an older generation's struggles. In this way, Maus is first and foremost a story about empathic discovery. Similarly, graphic novels can be used to explore the self. A fantastic example of this is 2006's Fun Home.

The Importance Of Stories And The Path To Self-Discovery

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a graphic memoir that delves into her relationship with her closeted father, and her own self-discovery of being a lesbian woman. The story shows the creator's own exploration of the emotional distance from her father, and Bechdel concludes that her father committed suicide two weeks after his wife requested a divorce. The novel takes on Bechdel’s own struggles with her sexual identity, and even include transcripts from her diary. Using art and literature, she draws comparisons to her father and herself, showing how similar they were as they both tried to express the dissatisfaction with their given gender roles. Bechdel says:

“...not only were we inverts, we were inversions of each other. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through me.”

Similarly to Maus's compelling story structure, this is another graphic novel working on several different levels. Bechdel retells her account while challenging the reader to be more curious themselves. She is asking the reader to challenge what they’re reading and ask questions throughout. This is important to Bechdel, because she tells the readers of her journey of discovering her own sexuality through her writing.

“My realization at nineteen that I was a lesbian came about in a manner consistent with my bookish upbringing.”

She even questions the reliability of the writing in her book as she’s writing it.

“When I was ten, I was obsessed with making sure my diary entries bore no false witness. But as I aged, hard facts gave way to vagaries of emotion and opinion. False humility, overwrought penmanship, and self-disgust began to cloud my testimony. Until, in this momentous entry, the trust is barely perceptible behind a hedge of qualifiers, encryption, and stray punctuation."

In her own memoir, she’s telling readers that she prefers fiction to reality. Bechdel creates a fictional world from a non-fictional standpoint. Her whole story is about the assumptions of what could have possibly lead to her father’s death. She analyzes these moments with her father, and concludes with her father’s suicide. Allison and her father romanticize fiction, and Fun Home may have been the only way Bechtel could come to terms with her father.

Growing Up And Looking Past Yourself

David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp educates and guides the reader along in a journey of growing up. Mazzucchelli writes a great story that follows the outline of moving away from the past to grow up, but does so with a unique style. One of the most noticeable elements in Mazzucchelli’s work is his use of colors — his characters see the world through entirely different hues.

The main protagonist Asterios, for example, has a cyan-colored world. Hana hangs out in her world of magenta, and other characters delve into the realm of yellow. Sometimes, these colors intermingle, but most of the time they stay separated. Some take a cynical approach, some humble, bitter, angry, self-absorbed, and countless others. No matter which color is presented, Mazzucchelli is showing a visual sense of how these characters see their world. He uses different coloring techniques, fonts and drawing styles to express this sense of individualism.

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At one point, Hana tries to blend herself in with Asterios. Hana is slowly taking over Asterios’s world with her own hue, magenta, blending with Asterios’s cyan. However, Asterios can’t see beyond his own self, so the color is forced to change through a series of circumstances. Asterios then moves into a video game-like situation, where he has to overcome these relics to become complete. Ultimately, Asterios has to let go of his past by giving up his lighter, his watch, and his self.

Addressing an important subject that is unique to his graphic novel, it seems that Mazzucchelli is saying that people can only see the world as they perceive it. To see it otherwise is death. Once your own perceptions of the world have been shattered, what else is there to live for? With each new life lesson, the world becomes a little bit gloomier, sadder, colder. Asterios is expressing the meaning of life through his own eyes, and the shadow of a meteor covers him until death arrives.

Other than the philosophy that we perceive our own realities, what is Mazzucchelli’s message with Asterios Polyp? I honestly don’t know. Humans can always empathize and sympathize, but only one's self can really know how they relate to the world. The meteor is always there to shatter us from thinking otherwise. Mazzucchelli tells the story of a selfish man, but when he begins to let go of those tendencies, death comes for him. Maybe the message is that the selfish live the way they want, but the unselfish suffer for ignoring their desires. Whatever you personally take from Asterios Polyp, it's clear to see that Mazzucchelli is sharing some of his deepest existential thoughts with the graphic novel.

Open To Interpretation: The Beauty Of Graphic Novels

The beauty of graphic novels is that we can expose issues with real weight in a way that mainstream comics simply can't. What's more, because of the originality of their approach, each reader can have their own interpretation and bring something new to the discussion. Graphic novels give authors an avenue to create artwork that allows readers to fill the gaps on their own, to personalize their experience of the story.

It's this personalization that allows graphic novels to dive into the subjects that matter and spark important conversations unlike any other medium. After all, the point of literature is to raise questions and create a discussion. Bechdel believes that it’s the challenge and study of literature that allows us to discover our true selves. With literature from the likes of Mazzuchelli, Campbell, Spiegelman and Bechdel herself, the graphic novel can help us get there.


This article was selected to be part of the Creators.co fanzine, Graphic Novels: The Breakthrough Medium That Revolutionized Storytelling.