Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Unique Appeal of the Graphic Narrative

Once dismissed as "kids' stuff," the graphic novel has emerged as one of our most provocative and socially engaged literary genres.  ♦ 
Within the past decade, graphic narrative has emerged as an intriguing mode of storytelling based on true events, engaging with social and political issues from around the globe and revolutionizing the way readers perceive the world around them.Graphic novelist (or cartoonist, if you will) Zeina Abirached’s graphic memoirs, for example, depict her upbringing in Beirut during the 1980s. Both A Game for Swallows (2012) and I Remember Beirut (2014) capture Abirached’s perspective of the Lebanese civil war through sharp black and white renderings of the tumult that surrounded her as a young girl. Her stark work offers a more intimate account of history than one might find in straight-up reportage or even the typical prose memoir and also makes the story more relatable and accessible to younger readers, who ordinarily might not be especially interested in reading about issues afflicting a foreign nation.
   From Abirached’s A Game for Swallows, courtesy of The Rumpus   
   Author Joe Sacco offers another account of a war-torn Middle Eastern state in his graphic novel Palestine (2001), which was featured in a recent article titled “Which books can help me understand what it’s like to be bombed?” for the children’s book section of The Guardian. In his nonfiction work, Sacco combines drawing and writing to recount his experiences while located in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the early 1990s. The illustrations that constitute his noteworthy journalistic endeavor serve as an unexpected portal by which even a child can attain some degree of awareness about what it is like to live in the midst of wartime devastation. The captivating illustrations, also in black and white, demonstrate how the harsh realities faced by foreign “others” who had once gone unnoticed—or had perhaps been deemed irrelevant— can come to life in unanticipated ways through graphic narrative. One will find a surprising amount of evocative detail displayed in graphic novels like Sacco’s, especially when honing in on the facial expressions of the various characters.

From Sacco’s Palestine, courtesy of 
     The works of Abirached and Sacco possess a particular magnetism that characterizes graphic narrative in general: in the midst of books containing large blocks of text that are at once intimidating and tedious to the eye, graphic literature has the potential to compel a younger audience, one that might gravitate more readily toward striking images resembling comics. Graphic narrative could also attract adult readers searching for refreshing literary mediums that challenge traditional reading practices. For consumers coming from a variety of literary backgrounds, the use of images lends a certain poignancy to the experience of reading that a more traditional literary text does not.
     Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, published just last year in 2015, is both a graphic narrative and a treatise on the subject
From Sousanis’s Unflattening, courtesy of The Paris Review
that explores how images enhance the reading experience when arranged in conjunction with text. In this long visual essay, which is itself completely made up of detailed drawings equipped with an assortment of captions, Sousanis articulates the importance of the image in communicating a more precise, multi-dimensional representation of one’s experience of the world, thereby creating a more stimulating portrayal of reality.
   In a society marked by seemingly constant technological innovations attempting to streamline so many aspects of our daily lives—innovations which have made the image as ubiquitous and powerful a means of communication as text—it would seem to make sense that the wholly textual manner in which reality is typically transmitted and received through literature might gradually lose its appeal. One might argue, however, that graphic narratives (especially those that concern the topic of war) are less about streamlining the experience of reading and more about augmenting and further complicating the reading experience through hauntingly vivid images that disquiet the psyche while simultaneously cultivating the imagination. Sousanis touches on this idea in an interview with The Paris Review wherein he mentions the exceptional capacity of images, relative to that of plain text, to encapsulate the subtleties of human emotion; he goes on to explain how this heightens a reader’s consciousness of the reality that the author intends to convey.
    But could the complexity of the graphic form actually hinder one’s ability to grasp the reality a literary work aims to portray? While it’s true that one could become lost in the sheer density of detail that fills the pages of a graphic narrative—especially a book as ambitious as Unflattening—it’s equally true that reality itself is complex, and not easily reduced to a simplified means of understanding. An author who strives to approximate reality through text alone therefore has a difficult task ahead of her, while one who attempts to represent reality through images supplemented by bits of text may manage to mimic, to some extent, the reader’s position in relation to reality. And this is the ultimate beauty of graphic storytelling. The reader interacts with the images of a graphic narrative in the same way one bears witness to reality itself: as it transpires before the naked eye.
  • About the Author
    Emily Westerfield is a junior studying creative writing and philosophy at Miami University. Among her quirks are her fascination for hedgehogs and (charming) lack of computer skills. Her aspirations include becoming a certified hot yoga instructor, learning to speak Russian, and managing to one morning snag a booth by the window at Kofenya.

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