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Saturday Book Discussion: Graphic novels



Several people suggested this one as a SBD topic, so today's focus on genre is graphic novels. (Yes, I know, graphic novels are not a "genre." Neither is YA; let's not be picky here.)

Now you kids may not remember a time when there was no such thing as a "graphic novel," but for those of us old enough to remember comic books still being 25 cents, the only time you ever saw comic art in a trade paperback (let alone a hardback) were coffee table collections of classic strips like Popeye or Li'l Abner. Marvel or DC might occasionally come out with a special giant-size collector's edition volume of Superman or Spider Man, but comics were... well, comics. They were for kids (even though plenty of adults read them), and certainly no one considered them worthy of occupying shelf space alongside real books.

Also, raise your hand if you remember a time when the local chain bookstore did not have a ginormous wall of manga, all conveniently translated into English (often originally written in English nowadays)? That's right, back in the day, we weeaboos (in America) could only buy expensive, untranslated imports if we were lucky enough to live near a Japantown. I had to hike to Yaohan's uphill both ways in the snow, yo!

Anyway, you can check out Wikipedia for a more thorough history, but what we now call "graphic novels" (comic stories originally published as trade paperbacks) generally didn't start appearing until the late 70s, and it wasn't until the big comic bubble of the 90s that they started taking up significant space on bookstore shelves.

Most graphic novels remain compilations of issues of a comic book series, but this has become a popular way for readers to follow a series. I haven't bought any "comic books" in years, but I continue to buy each new trade paperback volume of Bill Willingham's Fables, The Walking Dead, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are also more graphic novels being published in that format to start with, and it's less unusual for them to be acknowledged as "books" in their own right.

I will hereby cease giving a capsule history of graphic novels, which could easily become a history of comic books, and merely go through some of my past and present favorites. (And no doubt show my age...)

Marvel Graphic Novels



God Loves, Man Kills

Marvel published an entire series of prestige format trade paperbacks in the 80s, telling extended stories that couldn't be fit into regular issues of a series. Many of these are collector's items now. Many remain classics by legendary comics creators: The Death of Captain Marvel, Dreadstar, The New Mutants, God Loves, Man Kills, etc.

By the time they did Dazzler: The Movie, though, you kind of got the feeling they were running out of truly original ideas, and the line eventually became just extended issues of second-string series and movie tie-ins.

Sandman



Sandman

Yes, I know, being a Sandman fanboy is so 90s. I am kind of lukewarm about Neil Gaiman nowadays, and I know there are bits of Sandman that don't hold up well today, but there was some truly marvelous storytelling in this series, being as big a fan as I am of the long-planted plot seed that only comes to fruition after everyone but the author has forgotten about it. The blend of classical mythology with the modern mythology of superheroes (though the capes only made an occasional appearance) struck me as genius when I first read it. I'd probably be a more critical reader today (I think Gaiman does a lot of recycling of the same tropes), but this series remains a favorite in the depths of my undying fanboy heart.

Elfquest



Elfquest

C'mon, how can you not like Elfquest? :P There was even a roleplaying game! So much squee, so much twee, so much fandom wank!

If Sandman was the epitome of 90s fantasy, Elfquest is the epitome of the late 70s/ early 80s. The influence of Wendy and Richard Pini is probably underrated today, if for no other reason than they are why everyone now hates frakkin' elves.

You can read the entire series online.

Strangers in Paradise



Strangers in Paradise

I haven't followed this series in a long time, but it was one of the earlier successful self-publishing ventures by an independent comics creator. Terry Moore's huge cast of characters and lush pin-up style artwork earned it quite a dedicated following. The endless will-they-or-won't-they? drama of non-traditional comic heroines Francine and Katchoo is reminiscent of one of those long-running newspaper comic strips that has survived from the 1940s to the present day — if newspaper comic strips were allowed to be chock full of lesbian subtext and child prostitution storylines. I lost interest about the third or fourth time Terry Moore wrote himself out of a corner with, "And then, suddenly gangsters!" But I still recommend reading some of the earlier volumes, at least.

The Walking Dead



The Walking Dead
I have not even seen the AMC series yet, though I have it queued up on Netflix. The comics series is a character-driven zombie apocalypse, so if you like character-driven narratives and zombie apocalypses, why haven't you read this yet? It's got all the requisite gore and bloodshed, and quite a few head-desk wall-banging moments. Characters often do stupid things, and stupid things usually mean someone dies, which is why new characters are constantly being introduced.

If the series has a flaw, it's that the "No one is safe — no one!" theme means there's an awful lot of churn, and rather like a George R. R. Martin novel, you learn not to get attached to anyone because any given character has at best a 50/50 chance of living to the end of the current volume.

Fables



Fables

I have been a fan of Bill Willingham's storytelling and artwork since way back in his Elementals days, when he was one of the pioneers in the "grim and gritty superheroes" movement. Fables, his current hit about fairy tale characters living in modern New York City, is still going strong after a decade. Like Elementals, he's taken a bunch of cliche genre tropes and gritted them up a bit. He borrows from everything that isn't nailed down by copyright, and kills off characters with glee (though with the levels of magic involved, death is frequently not permanent).

Fables has certainly had ups and downs over the course of its run, and nothing lately has been quite as epic as the finale of the "Homelands" story arc, but even though I've come close to dropping it a few times (like when Willingham gets his neocon crank on and has Bigby Wolf comparing Fabletown to Israel), I'm still reading it. The occasional Crowning Moments of Awesome redeem some of the less-than-stellar storylines.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer



Buffy

Joss Whedon is like Neil Gaiman, a fan favorite who wears thin after a while, and Buffy is like Fables, an epic long-running series that sometimes falters when its creator become too enamored of his own shticks.

That said, I remain an unapologetic Buffy fan.

I've already reviewed Buffy Season Eight, which is the "canon" continuation of the TV series, and I have not started reading Season Nine yet. If you are a Buffy fan, I think the Whedon continuation series will entertain and annoy you much like the varying quality of the Whedon TV seasons did.

There was also a long-running Dark Horse Comics series, which was not as closely tied to Whedon or the TV show's continuity. I read only a few volumes of this, and its quality varied even more wildly.

Usagi Yojimbo



Buffy

I am not, generally speaking, a fan of anthropomorphic animal series, and not just because of the inevitable association with furries. But Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo is just plain fun, a loving synthesis of Japanese history, fairy tales, chanbara flicks, and funny animals. There have been a lot of spin-offs and games over the past 25 years, not to mention Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cross-overs, but while I haven't followed the series faithfully the entire time, I do always enjoy picking up a volume.

Maison Ikkoku



Maison Ikkoku

Rumiko Takahashi, most famous for Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, and Inu Yasha, wrote a bittersweet romantic comedy in the 80s which has largely been forgotten (at least in the US), although like most of her series it was also adapted into a successful anime series. Maison Ikkoku followed the long, long romance of slacker college student Yusaku Godai and the beautiful young widow who runs the boarding house he is staying in, Kyoko Otanashi.

The long arc with its final HEA ending appealed to my sappy side, even if there were some occasional WTF? episodes (like Yusaku deciding to try to rape Kyoko and failing only because he was too drunk — this might have passed as "romantic humor" in an 80s Japanese manga, but I don't think it would go over too well today). The series starts to wear when Takahashi adds new characters and improbable twists every time she needs yet another reason to keep the would-be lovers apart, but she does finally bring it to a heart-warming conclusion, and it remains one of my favorite comic stories of all time, even if it is pretty dated now.

Hikaru no Go



Hikaru no Go

I am really not much of a manga reader, so this is the only other one I have read recently. I've already written a complete review of the series; despite being quite juvenile and not always brilliantly written, it's quite a lot of fun, especially if you like go, and it will kindle your interest in go if you're not already a fan.




I could go on listing every graphic novel and manga series I've ever read, but feel free to share your favorites in the comments.




BlanketsBlack HoleLove Hina


Poll #1838468 Graphic novels

Do you read graphic novels (or comics, or manga)?

Yes, a lot!
29(40.3%)
Sometimes
23(31.9%)
Once in a while
16(22.2%)
Not since I was a kid
2(2.8%)
Never
2(2.8%)

Do you think graphic novels count as "reading" (or "literature")?

Sure, why not?
32(44.4%)
They're not the same as novels, but it's still storytelling
37(51.4%)
Not really; they may be entertaining, but they're still just comic books
2(2.8%)
No, and I don't understand why grown-ups would be interested in them for any reason other than nostalgia.
1(1.4%)

What kind of graphic novels do you read?

Trade paperback collections of regular series
46(22.9%)
Original graphic novels
52(25.9%)
Regular comic books
35(17.4%)
Manga
42(20.9%)
Coffee table books of newspaper strip collections
26(12.9%)




Previous Saturday Book Discussions.
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