A graphic novel is to a comic book as, well, a prose novel is to a short story. Make that a clichéd short story. Traditional comic books are, for the most part, formulaic and structural the same way a TV drama (or a pop song) is. Graphic novels try to tell far more complex and elaborate stories in far less traditional ways than your monthly "Spiderman."
The scope and scale of the graphic novel is limited only by the author's imagination...and their discipline. Occasionally they are created and published as a single project, but far more frequently they appear in serial form as comics until the whole work is done. Assuming it ever is. These projects can take a dozen years to complete. Too often the story never gets finished, or begins to meander hopelessly.
Buying into a serialized graphic novel is an act of faith by the reader that is not always rewarded. It is not an inexpensive act of faith, either. Individual trade paperbacks and collected volumes may be reasonably priced, but a story may take six or 10 volumes to tell. In recommending some of my favorites, I've chosen ones that are all (more or less) complete. Most of these have Wikipedia entries, so I'm keeping descriptions to a minimum for reasons of space.
I'll start off with two that tackle the same question: how do you write a genuinely interesting story about an omnipotent being? I'm talking about someone who wouldn't give Superman a second glance. What can you say about such a person that wouldn't be boring as all hell?
Iredeemable, by Mark Waid, asks, "Being super-Superman and having the entire world depending on you has to be one hell of a psychological burden, so what happens if he snaps? What are the consequences of an omnipotent being having a psychotic break?" I thought the ending was too cute, but the ride is definitely worth it. Try Volume I (of ten) and see what you think.
La Muse, by Adi Tantimedh (Author) and Hugo Petrus (Illustrator) says, "How do you make an omnipotent being interesting? You make her completely irresponsible." Well, why not? There is pretty much nothing she can screw up so badly that she can't undo it. Oh yeah, and give her a long suffering and normal sister. The result is lighthearted, silly, and funny (in an apocalyptic way). It's also just one volume, so it's entirely affordable.
Strangers In Paradise, by Terry Moore, took 15 years and 93 issues to tell, but Terry's a professional and he made it through to the end. At its core it's a romance, in a ménage à trois, "Kill Bill," weirdly lighthearted kind of way. David's in love with Katchoo but she's in love with Francine who isn't at all sure who she's in love with. Well, not for many issues...and, boy, do they have issues (rimshot). For a start there is Katchoo's past as an agent/consort with a criminal band of killer Amazons who've infiltrated the U.S. government. Then there's the money she stole from said organization. Not to mention Francine's ex, Freddy Femur and Katchoo's terrifyingly competent (or maybe that should be competently terrifying) half-sister, Tambi.
I can't recommend Terry's more recent 30-issue novel, Echo. It ends far too abruptly with way too much deus ex machina and way too many unanswered questions. The coda simply does not make any kind of logical sense. I honestly don't know what Terry had in mind, but it reads like he decided, "Oh, to hell with it" and just threw the project away.
Next is the true opus magnus of the field, several intertwined novels, really. I'm speaking of Love and Rockets, by Los Bros Hernandez. It ran 50 issues over 15 years. It kind of breaks my rule because it's not really complete. It's an ongoing saga. Furthermore, publication of the 50 issue run became erratic as The Brothers admitted that they were having trouble keeping to the discipline of producing regular issues. It shows in some of the stories, I think. There seems to be some loss of coherency towards the end. Or maybe it's just that the stories are so complex and intertwined that I lost the thread. I'd have to go back and reread all 50 issues to be sure. Nonetheless, it sets standards for this field that few others have met in terms of writing, character development, and artwork. The three most major novels are collected in these books:
Finally, the most "literary" of all my recommendations: Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman. This, contrary to my opening paragraph, was originally published as a monthly series of comic books by DC.
The focus of Sandman is on Dream, one of a family of immortals. They are more like elemental forces than gods; they include Delirium, Desire, and Despair, and what is arguably Neil's most popular character, Death. She featured in two stand-alone novels, The Time of Your Life and The High Cost of Living. The collected series of 10 volumes, each of which is more or less a standalone novel, is rich and wonderful and I hated when I was done with it so much that I started all over again.
It took the series a while to find its footing. Therefore I do not recommend that you sample it with Volume 1. A better taste might be Volume 5, A Game of You. Don't worry about jumping in in the middle.
But, I think the truly outstanding volume and the one you should really begin with is Brief Lives, Volume 7. It's brilliant, and the prose is everything you could hope for from Neil. Let me close this column by quoting from the first page of Chapter 3, part of a short essay on what it means to live long:
There are not many of them, all things considered: the truly old. Even on this planet, in this age, when people consider a mere hundred years, or thousand, to be an unusual span.
There are, for example, less than ten thousand humanoid individuals alive on this planet today who have personal memories of the saber-toothed tiger, the megatherium, the cave bear.
There are today less than a thousand who walked the streets of Atlantis (the first Atlantis. The other lands that bore that name were shadows, echo-Atlantises, myth lands, and they came later).
There are less than five hundred living humans who remember the human civilizations that predated the great lizards....
And so on.
That's it for this week. Next time it's back to teas. I've discovered something new (to me) that I just have to tell you about!
Wednesday columnist Ctein launches a series of OT posts this week to catch up on them—he's been staying on topic too much. Have faith.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Ben Marks: "Oh. Wow. Taste in these things is intensely personal, but I have to say, Ctien's recommendations do not have a false note among them. Would add V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and Scott Pilgrim, although they stretch the definitions laid out above. For what it is worth, I think the Hernandez Bros.' work stands with any (any) literature produced in the last century."