Although I heard about graphic novels a long time ago (back in the 1990s), I am a relative newcomer to the experience of them. At the time I first heard of them, while browsing a comic shop in Champaign, Illinois and discussing who would play Robin in the forthcoming Batman movie (the store owner and I were holding out for Michael J. Fox; it turned out to be Chris O’Donnell), I was mildly repelled by the idea of them, at least as applied to the comics I grew up reading. I did not see the point in making the hero of the story as dark or as mentally-unbalanced as the villains he was trying to catch. If there’s no difference between him and those villains, there’s no reason to read the book, unless one actually gets satisfaction of some sort from reading about what crazy people are doing in a comic book, an observation I made as late as last year to a very sweet former co-worker of mine who just didn’t enjoy the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movies because, dadgummit, they weren’t dark enough.
She wanted a Batman as crazy as the Joker. Indeed, if I recall correctly, there was a short-lived TV series many seasons back which focused on the grown-up children of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Part of the backstory of that series was that the Joker had, in fact, driven Batman crazy in the end, leaving the children to either pick up where Wayne left off or descend into crime themselves.
Nolan didn’t go in that direction with his movies because he wanted to appeal to a mass audience and because, I believe, he felt it wasn’t necessary to go that far. His movies do great honor to the darker graphic novels, however, and I was charmed by the way in which he handled Selina Kyle’s character in The Dark Knight Rises, hinting at Catwoman through Kyle’s profession as a cat burglar without actually going in that direction. Robin John Blake picks up the mantle of the Bat at the end of that final movie, although it’s not clear whether he will become Batman or Nightwing in the months to come. Most movie-goers knew that Robin eventually becomes both Nightwing and, later, Batman, fulfilling Wayne’s prophecy that anyone (that is, anyone properly trained) can become Batman. By the time I encountered Batman: The Black Mirror three years ago, Dick Grayson had in fact gone through his career as Nightwing and was defending Gotham as Batman, while Commissioner Gordon was dealing with a divorce from his wife and a drug-addicted, demented son. That book is one of the best graphic novels around.
If we want darkness in our comics, genuine creepiness, there are other graphic novels in which to find it, apart from the DC and the Marvel universes. I just finished And Then Emily Was Gone, by John Lees and Iain Laurie. It’s about a detective, Greg Hellinger, haunted by visions of his past, who goes to the Orkney Islands off Scotland in search of a missing girl. The idea of the plot is very adult, and it’s carried off well by Lees, his artist, Laurie, and their colorist. Our real world becomes a world of nightmares you can’t wake up from; and by the time you finish the series (which has been collected into one volume), you can’t tell which world you’re in. The monsters that are drawn in the novel are drawn under specific instructions, but they are probably not going to be to everyone’s taste. More universally effective, I think, are the faces of Hellinger and the people he encounters and tries to help: every one of them is scarred and pockmarked–damaged in a fundamental way by their battles with life. These images build up, page after page, and I suspect that many readers will be remembering them long after the memory of the monsters has faded.
Whether it’s heroes or monsters, both of these types of graphic novels deal with distorted people in distorted worlds. I also appreciate novels which depict our world, as well. I have begun reading a series called Velvet, by Ed Brubaker, about Velvet Templeton, secretary to the director of a spy agency, who is drawn into the spy game herself. The artwork, the coloring, the lettering, and the story are all first-rate–sharp-edged and vivid–and I hope to finish the series soon.
I must tell you, though, that the best comic I’ve ever read is not a book of horror or heroes or spies. It’s a comic about life, and how we live it. It’s the comic called Daytripper, by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, the story of Bras de Olivias Dominguez, who dies at the end of each chapter of the story, only to be found living again at a different point of his life as a new chapter begins. We see him living and making choices–some good, some bad–but all with an eye toward experiencing his family and his life as fully as he can. The story and the artwork are superb, a book truly meant for grown-up people, and I recommend it highly. In a way, it represents to me the pinnacle of the graphic novel form: the best that such books can be.
Maybe that judgment is accurate; maybe it’s not; but Daytripper certainly represents for me the highlight of my own long, long journey from being a ten year old boy raiding my older cousin’s stash of Marvel and DC comics back in 1966. Those comics, especially the Marvel ones, introduced me to the often ambiguous and tension-filled world I was already trying to make sense of, and they explained it to me. They introduced me to the concepts of good and bad, and the more complex idea that good and bad can be mixed together in the same person. Those comics taught me to read. And as if all those benefits were not enough, my cousin’s gift of them to me gave me something else: my first, and best, lesson in what generosity is, and what generosity can mean to someone when we extend what we have to him. They were just books, but they meant everything, and I shall gratefully be forever in my cousin’s debt because of them.