Graphic Novels are the New . . . Books

Teaching a course on graphic novels has allowed me to spend these opening weeks of summer immersed in comics. I’ve visited quite a few comics stores in Grand Rapids. By far the best bang for the buck is the Grand Rapids Public Library, which has a huge selection of graphic novels by classic and contemporary writers alike. And every few days, a nice hefty package arrives from Amazon. Altogether, I’ve read or re-read about 25 or 30 comics in the last six weeks, including Watchmen, Sandmen (a few volumes), Maus, Metamaus, Barefoot Gen, American Born Chinese, Y: the Last Man, Habibi, Blankets, Persepolis, and manga too numerous to mention. Reading all of these comics is a rough job, but someone has to do it.

One quick observation: even in the inevitable digitization of all texts, graphic novels make a pretty compelling case for non-electronic, old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. Sure, most manga is available at sites such as mangareader.net, and there are all kinds of web comics out there (see WebComics Nation), but I have found relatively few graphic novels available for mainstream consumption on Kindle or iTunes. There are a few comics applications for the iPad, but the majority of comics still exist first and foremost as print texts. Buying them means going to brick-and-mortar stores, where the context is important. And then there is the whole matter of collecting comics, which is a big part of comics stores’ merchandise.

For me, though, the most bookish thing about graphic novels is the digitally inimitable artwork: comics are printed on special paper (that’s the extent of my knowledge here) that varies from publisher to publisher, and the colors cannot be reproduced consistently in digital formats. Perhaps most importantly, the spatialization of time that is so central to comics just isn’t the same when you are reading on a digital reader: you can’t see as much space/time simultaneously.

Strangely enough–I am a technology advocate, in general–I am comforted by the inherent value of ink-and-paper comics. You youngsters, with your new-fangled computers!

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About RR

Assistant Professor of English Education at Grand Valley State University.
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