Reading Graphically: Graphic Novels at a Glance

This year, I have embraced graphic novels for the unique and rich experience they are.

I was in grade school when I read Black Beauty for the first time, as a graphic novel. My 9-year-old mind understood that it wasn't quite the novel, but when it came to animals, I was willing to make adjustments. I loved that story, and that horse, and it deeply affected how I see the world.

Somewhere along the way, I confused comics for graphic novels, and they lost their attraction. Born-again Christian Archie comics have their own charm, but they were more vapid than marshmallow-fluff. 

Now, however, I am reclaiming the graphic novel for myself, and I am enjoying our reacquaintance.

It began earlier this year with Illegal, an excruciatingly beautiful and painful story about a youth's journey to join his older brother and sister across desert and ocean. The journey is brutal and treacherous, and the boy takes wild, desperate, unimaginable risks. For months, he lives by his wits, teams up with other desperate people, and sacrifices everything to find safety.

When I was finally brave enough to trust another graphic novel, I reached for a book that was well-received by critics but completely unknown to me: the Man-Booker award winning Sabrina. It was not a pleasant experience. The story was difficult to follow and the characters were hard to tell apart (they were all square-shaped, and heads and hair looked like Weebles). I couldn't quite follow any storylines. The small-size san serif handwritten script was difficult to read, and some pages were almost completely filled with small speech bubbles of conspiracy theorist meanderings. I also suspect undefined animal cruelty. For a couple of days, neither I nor the characters had a clue as to what was happening in the story.

But library book due dates provide a sense of urgency, so I grabbed a stack of my recently-borrowed books and settled into a soft chair with a cup of tea and a few cookies to binge.

With a military uniform and yellow star on the cover, A Family Secret could have been an unapproachable book. However, the drawings were soft, round, and approachable, and I needed to discover the family secret for myself. So did Jeroen, who figured maybe Gran had cool things he could sell at the annual Queen's Day flea market. Gran had some items, and a story to tell about her family's experiences during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Gran takes us back in time to show us her experiences, and the surprise ending left me in tears. It was well written and beautifully illustrated, and did not flinch from the truth.

Next, I went with a simple line-drawing quirky little novel titled everyone's an aliebn when ur a aliebn too. I so needed that. Every page was filled with love, wonder, appreciation, and innocent observations presented in black and white. So much happened to the little pot-bellied aliebn in those pages: seasons, friendships, work relationships, a clever reference to The Giving Tree... it was a balm after so much sadness and confusion. I adored that clever novel, and I plan to re-read it soon.

Now, imagine you're an illustrator of a successful graphic novel series that features mice. You and your illustrator buddies want to write a book together for the series, but their styles are very, very different from yours and from each other's. There should be a way for everyone to write a book together, right? Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard accomplishes that feat. The premise is charming: one night, an innkeeper offers to wipe the tab of the mouse who tells the best tale. Each mouse tells a different tale penned by a different artist. Each story was unique, each artist displayed their own individual style, but each tale was truly part of the whole. I like woodland creatures, and stories, and good illustrations, and this book ticked each of those boxes.

It was a great binge, and a wonderful reminder that so much can happen on a page when text and graphics join forces. The stack of library books is getting shorter, but there are still some great titles waiting for me. I'm not sure if I'll start next with dogs or maybe a panic-stricken teenager — should I judge a graphic novel by its cover? — but no matter which I choose, I will have a very interesting read.