You get the picture?

Dipping our toes beyond the limits of 'conventional' reading, we discover a world of bright, loud and multi-dimensional stories with the graphic novel.

By: Jo,   5 minutes


I must confess that I was never Superman. Nor Wonder Woman. Not even She-Ra. Growing up, the closest I got to imagining myself as a superhero was when I had to take the role of Friar Tuck at my older brother’s Robin of Sherwood-themed birthday party because he wouldn’t let me be Maid Marian.

Comic books and the heroes they championed just weren’t my thing. I don’t know whether I saw them as part of my brother’s world, and so avoided them like the plague, or whether I was just naturally drawn to text-based story books instead. I used to flick through the cartoon strips in the Funday Times or at the back of Look-In magazine – Count Duckula springs to mind. But that’s longer ago than I care to remember. It would seem I’ve gone most of my adult life without picking up a comic book or a graphic novel.

Then one day…

Back in the summer, a series of fortunate events led me to wonder if I’d been missing out all these years. If such a self-confessed reading fiend as myself was, in fact, neglecting a whole world of story just because I didn’t have the taste for a certain way of consuming them.

It would seem I’ve gone most of my adult life without picking up a comic book or a graphic novel.

It started when I went along to the Cracking Stories event at the MShed museum in Bristol. One of the questions posed at the event was, “Do people who create stories for animation think differently from those writing novels, or plays?” On the panel were Rachel Carter – a children’s writer, Richard Headon – director of performance company Desperate Men, and Paul Kewley – Executive Producer at Aardman Features. The discussion about the nature of contemporary storytelling and how each art form is just a different way of expressing narrative fascinated me. With my head down most of time in the world of business writing (and as often as possible in the world of children’s books – the word-only variety), I’ve become used to a straightforward textual way of getting a story across. Visuals come into it, of course, when writing copy for a website or brochure, but the relationship between words and pictures is more of a casual acquaintance than an unbreakable bond.

Super squirrel to the rescue

Not long afterwards, I became aware of a buzz on Twitter – amongst the children’s book writers, editors, agents and fans that I follow – about a book called Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. The blurb describes it as a “genre-breaking new novel by a master storyteller”. Why genre-breaking, I wondered. The story is about a young girl, a vacuum cleaner and a superhero squirrel – so far so good, but not so wild an idea for 8 to 12 year-olds as to necessitate the label genre-breaking. But as soon as I trotted off to my local library and got my mitts on a copy, it became clear that what’s different about Flora & Ulysses isn’t what the story is about, it’s the way the story is told.

Why are the majority of formats found in mainstream publishing so rigidly one thing or the other?

It’s subtitled The Illuminated Adventures, and alongside the usual pages of printed text are whole sections set out like a comic. Some panels with speech bubbles or captions, but others purely visual and some full-page illustrations. Illustrations in young children’s books are nothing new, of course. But this combination in a book for this age group – this flitting seamlessly between words and pictures with some of the story being told entirely in images – isn’t very common. The thing is, it works so well that my next question was naturally, why isn’t it very common? Why are the majority of formats found in mainstream publishing so rigidly one thing or the other? Are we all following some imaginary rules about ‘proper’ ways to tell or consume stories?

Mission into the unknown

It was time to journey a bit deeper into the world where images and language have always been curled up snugly together. And luckily, amongst all the traditional text novels on my shelves, I knew I had just the book to help me.

Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons &  John Higgins

Watchmen is a graphic novel ranked as one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels. So it’s not just a great graphic novel, it’s a great novel full stop. You’ve probably heard of it. I definitely should’ve heard of it before I did, but I first became aware of it a year or so ago when I attended 26’s Wordstock event and was persuaded by a chap who was clearly a huge fan of the novel to take it home as part of a mass book swap. I was excited to have been introduced to such a strange new creature, but all the way home on the train Watchmen stayed zipped up in my bag. I placed it proudly on my bookshelf (to display to visitors how wonderfully diverse my reading habits were), but it was a cuckoo in the nest. I opened it up a few times to start reading, but the way it looked was so alien to me, I didn’t know where to begin.

Watchmen pages

And so, having been gently persuaded by Flora & Ulysses about how wonderfully words and pictures can work together, I decided to give Watchmen another go. And I really did give it a go, I promise. But I’m sorry to say that I only got about 30 pages in before there were longer and longer periods between picking it up. Then my boyfriend, who’d seen it discarded on the coffee table, asked if he could read it and merrily got through it in a few days. You might assume this had something to do with it being more of a “boy’s” story, but I really don’t think that’s the reason. I was interested in the characters and compelled to find out what happened to them. But I struggled with how to read it. And for someone who by all accounts was reading pretty much on exit from the womb that was an uncomfortable feeling. It was like reading in a language that I sort of knew, but definitely wasn’t my mother tongue. I could do it with a bit of effort, but there was always the thought of the easier and quicker ways I could be achieving the same thing.

It was like reading in a language that I sort of knew, but definitely wasn’t my mother tongue.

Whereas I can skim through a good chunk of pages of a text novel in a sitting, merrily losing myself in the fictional world of words, here I was stuttering over this story presented mainly through pictures; having to go back over each page several times to check I was ‘getting’ everything. I know I said it wasn’t the fault of the genre – I usually like reading science fiction, dystopian, mystery – but I did wonder if the combination of the pure graphic format and the slight stretch out of my comfort zone into superhero territory was adding up to one copy of Watchmen left to fester on the coffee table.

Back to the drawing board

So I trotted back to my local library (Bristol Central Library in case you were wondering, it really is a marvellous place) and took a backward step. Now, instead of trying to jump in headfirst, I’m trying the one-body-part-at-a-time approach. If Flora & Ulysses was me dipping my toe in, then these books are me paddling in up to my knees.

Eustace by S.J. Harris and Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds

I’ve found some graphic novels in genres nestled within my comfort zone – types of books I didn’t previously know existed – and I’m excited about immersing myself in these new stories. Not just because I’ll be meeting new characters, but because I’ll be meeting them in a strangely familiar, yet wonderfully new world. They’ll be talking to me through both words and pictures and, I hope, leading me beyond traditional “reading and writing” to explore new ways of both absorbing and creating stories.

Have you come across any graphic novels that could help me towards full immersion? I’d love to hear about them: @jotwriting


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