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Are Graphic Novels Better Suited to Telling Non-fiction Stories than Prose?

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s lead story looks at the new graphic novel Cuba: My Revolution by Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel (DC Comics/Vertigo).

The story is based on the life of artist Inverna Lockpez, a Cuban dissident who was tortured and eventually escaped the island. The intensity of both the violence and emotion of the story is visceral, something he manages to convey in his drawings. Had the same story been told in prose, it would have certainly been different, but would it have been as powerful? As the cliche goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words and imagery has an undeniable power to express intense emotions — love, hate, anger, fear — in a way that prose often cannot.

Over the past decade, publishers have turned to using graphic novels to explain complex non-fiction stories, from FSG’s 9/11 Commission Report to Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, among numerous others. This is not so suggest that one medium is superior to the other, but do graphic novels have an advantage over prose works in depicting certain kinds of stories?

Read our story and let us know what you think in the comments.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted October 26, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Graphic novels have a long history, and a grand dame of the genre is the ‘Classics Illustrated’ series, first created in 1941 by Albert Kantner for the Elliot Publishing Co.

    These titles were (and still are, in reprinted form) excellent lead-ins for young readers, from ‘The Three Musketeers’ to ‘The War of the Worlds’.

    All CI books that I have seen have a high standard of illustration, which is paramount – but the texts match the pictures well too.

    They certainly do not replace the originals, and are not intended to, whereas a newer title such as ‘Hellboy’ is a graphic original that stands on its own feet – albeit being a natural for extension into a pair of rather good movies.

  2. Posted October 26, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that graphic novels are more suited to non-fiction. One of the most popular traits of sequential art is its ability to depict the fiction and fantasy of a story (a reason why fantasy/superhero and scifi) are the most popular forms of the genre.

    Non fiction graphic novels are becoming increasingly popular and I agree that one of the main reasons is their ability to use imagery to sensationalize and create visual impression of real life events. The reason we go to a museum or pick up a historical of autobiographical book is to learn what happened, what it was like and how people felt. This is how graphic novels are successful. Imagery is highly emotive and gives a much better sense of feeling and atmosphere than words ever could. This however is also the reason, I feel, graphic novels can work badly as pieces of non-fiction.

    One of the main purposes of historical research is to remain objective. The best graphic novelist’s use their imagery to influence their reader’s perceptions and this is something true historians should avoid. Are we really going to stay unbiased when we are seeing the images of dead bodies instead of a numeric figure of the death toll? To really understand some events we need a lot of facts and figures which can’t be accommodated within a speech bubble.

    I think non-fiction graphic novels that have been produced are successful, particularly the autobiographical (Perspolis – Marjane Satrapi and Cuba: My Revolution – Dean Haspiel) which strived to be emotive. They encourage people who would never consider picking up a history book (myself included) to become more learned. Education research has also found that sequential art can help children retain knowledge which is another benefit of using graphic novels for non-fiction. However, if you are proposing to create a novel based on two years research, with a bibliography of facts and figures it’s probably best to stick to writing.

    Reposted: http://ibangbooks.blogspot.com/2010/10/are-graphic-novels-better-suited-to.html

  3. Posted October 26, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    One of the problems with using the graphic novel genre for non-fiction is that those who develop the narrative and artwork are more likely to be artists than experts in the topic selected. Take Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s “From Hell,” which purports to be a nonfiction account about Jack the Ripper. It’s an interesting work of fiction, and the basis for a popular movie starring Johnny Depp. But despite the extensive endnotes attempting to justify the work as history, history it is not. The authors pick up just about every myth and fraud ever written about what is perhaps the most famous unsolved murder case in world history. The movie version takes liberties even with the myths and frauds in an effort to make the story line more interesting.

  4. Jim D.
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    @Noel: Graphic novels aren’t a GENRE; they’re a MEDIUM. Also – Alan Moore doesn’t present From Hell as history; the picking from every myth and fraud about the case is very much the point. In a way, it’s a history of the myth, not a history of the fact, if such a thing could even ever exist. The appendix isn’t an attempt to justify the book as history, it’s Moore’s acknowledgement of the various sources he drew from in composing his own, fictional, account.

    If you haven’t you should read “Dance of the Gull Catchers”, the appendix to the book. From Wikipedia:

    “The annotations are followed by an epilogue in comics format, The Dance of the Gull-Catchers, in which Moore and Campbell expand on the various theories of the Ripper crimes and the likelihood—or rather, the near-impossibility—of the true identity of the culprit ever being identified…in the serialised publication of Dance of the Gull-Catchers Moore included an “author’s statement” which consisted of a blown-up panel from the prologue, depicting the psychic Robert James Lees confessing that although his visions were fraudulent, they were accurate: “I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That’s the funny part.”

    And why are you citing a movie (an especially bad one at that, with which Moore had absolutely zero involvement) as evidence to support your argument that comics (not movies) are ill-suited to non-fiction?

  5. Posted October 26, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t seen anyone try to produce a graphic novel of “War and Peace” yet, which may be a good thing. I have been tempted at times to chuck in the traditional route in favor of a graphic novel for my fiction books because they are so visual. But that may come later if I feel like torturing myself. While a picture may convey a thousand words, its the craft of creating those word pictures which intrigues me at the moment.

    As for “From Hell”, I found it wanting at the end, and strayed significantly from the actual casework, since I did a great deal of historical research for my book “The Queen’s Marksman” and did not over-embellish much. The idea that the detective drowned himself in a mixture of laudanum and opium was sensationalist to the extreme, and did I care if one of the women survived to live elsewhere? No, because the notion that she did survive was not at issue. We still did not find out why the Ripper did what he did, and he was never found, so anything the authors did with him was conjecture at best. Case closed.

  6. Edward Nawotka
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Dean Haspiel responds: “Dub me biased, but I believe comic books are as equal and important a storytelling medium as literature, film, music, song, etc.”

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