Earlier this year, Chris Oliveros, publisher at Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly, lobbied the Book Industry Study Group to create a new category for graphic novels. As the industry standard for genre definitions, and the prime determinant of how books are shelved, the Study Group’s categories, known as BISAC subject headings, have a quietly powerful effect upon the success or failure of unconventional books. Thanks in part to Oliveros’ efforts, graphic novels are now being sold in their own distinct section in Indigo, Chapters and Barnes & Noble bookstores. The days of comics as the three-panel gag strip in the weekend paper are long gone. The form, it seems, has morphed in the public’s eye from “comics” to “books.” And the timing couldn’t be better for Oliveros.
Born and raised in Montreal, Oliveros founded Drawn & Quarterly in 1990 and quickly established a stable of artists who were just beginning to develop a body of work but had not yet been published. The company has been publishing full-fledged graphic novels since 1992 (starting with Chester Brown’s The Playboy), and its extremely high production values and award-winning titles have been seminal in the legitimization of the genre. Popular with the college crowd, graphic novels have captured the imaginations of younger readers in the same way that Marvel comics worked on the minds of the previous generation. Instead of superheroes like Spiderman and the Hulk, however, comic artists today create intensely autobiographical and historically oriented work with complex narrative and emotional landscapes—qualities usually considered literary.
My New York Diary, by Julie Doucet, is one of Drawn & Quarterly’s best. A coming of age tale about a girl who moves from Montreal to New York, and degenerates into a cycle of drugs, epileptic fits and abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, My New York Diary is drawn in Doucet’s trademark panels of clutter, which combine with heavy blacks to create a sense of emotional claustrophobia perfectly suited to the narrative.
In Berlin, Jason Lutes presents the German capital in 1928-29, during the fall of the Weimar Republic. Thugs roam the streets; nightclubs are filled with cabarets. At times Lutes adopts a High Modernist style, much like what Virginia Woolf and James Joyce were doing at the time, moving about the city via overlapping interior monologues and different typographical scripts. The artist Marthe’s thoughts are represented with a handwritten script; Kurt the journalist thinks in typewriter font. In an accomplished scene, Lutes pans out, linking journalists all over the city—all typing their own stories, trying to meet the next day’s deadline. As Lutes says, “The basic components of comics are word, picture and sequence. My God. There’s an incredible, an infinite world of nuance and subtlety that can be achieved there.” With twenty-four serial issues being gathered into three graphic novels, Berlin ranks as one of the most ambitious graphic-novel projects to date.
Road to America, by the French artist Baru, follows Saïd Boudiaf, a young Algerian boxer, through his rise to the European championship amid the nightlife, violence and revolutionary turmoil of 1950s Paris. Baru, a respected master of bande dessinée in his native France, originally published the story in installments in Oliveros’ popular Drawn & Quarterly anthologies. Beautiful watercolour panels infuse the narrative with visual meaning: one of the first scenes, a car exploding on the street, practically leaps off the page. The National Liberation Front (FLN), in its efforts to create an independent Algeria, pressures the high-profile Saïd to become a spokesman for the cause, and he finds it increasingly difficult to remain neutral. The cover of Road to America shows a boxer, arms raised in victory, superimposed on an Arab raising his arms to be searched by soldiers—a visual dichotomy that brilliantly evokes Saïd’s situation. When the French police open fire on a group of peaceful Algerian protesters in Paris, the famous boxer disappears forever amid the chaos, leaving only rumours of his fate.
James Sturm has produced a trilogy of comics for Drawn & Quarterly about the growing pains of early America (soon to be collected into a single graphic novel, James Sturm’s America). The first book in the trilogy, The Revival, explores the nature of faith through the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801. The abandoned mining town of Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight, the second book in the trilogy, becomes the setting for a slaughter of immigrant Chinese workers at the hands of the returning white owners.
Sturm’s final installment, The Golem’s Mighty Swing, uses the same theme of racial unrest to profound effect. Inspired by a photo of the House of David, a bearded, barnstorming Jewish baseball team from the turn of the century, Sturm turns his fictional team into a metaphoric Wandering Jew, travelling the back roads of middle America (which Sturm paints in beautiful grey washes), trying to return home. The captain of the impoverished Stars of David agrees to collaborate with a promoter to create a golem—a mythical Jewish monster—to bring an air of spectacle to the games. When the crowd starts to get ugly, it becomes clear that the team is in mortal danger.
“You can look at a baseball box score,” says Sturm, “and understand the flow of the game. Comics are like that in a way, stripped-down information that must be decoded for a narrative to be performed in your brain.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the climactic scene of The Revival, in which a desperate mother holds up her dead child to be brought back to life. The mother hugs the child in one panel; in the next, the child’s arm has moved. Is the child alive or did the mother move the arm? Sturm leaves the moment ambiguous. The “gutter” between the panels—a fraction of time in which the reader’s mind fills in the action—is at the heart of the comic medium itself.
Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, set in the sparsely drawn prairie of nineteenth-century Canada, presents an openly biased retelling of the clashes between Métis farmers and English-Canadian soldiers that led to the hanging of Louis Riel. Brown distances himself from reality, intentionally undermining the “truth” of the historical account by drawing cartoonish characters: distorted pinheads with broad shoulders, eyes without pupils (à la Little Orphan Annie) and the occasional exaggerated feature (sausage noses, clown feet). Brown’s most controversial liberty is a portrait of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald as a deliberate creator of conditions he knew would lead to a Métis rebellion—and justify financing the national railway. However, Brown provides detailed notes whenever he veers from the historical record, giving this highly personal account of history a quality of historical fiction.
A cursory glance at literary-prize short lists from the past few years—the Giller, the Governor General’s Award—suggests the Canadian literary canon is shaping up to be a record of historical fiction: Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Perhaps the parallel trend in graphic novels is unconscious mimicry of the literary canon, a bid for legitimacy. With their unique blend of words and images, however, graphic novels have the potential for much more than literary imitations. For a new generation, the mind’s eye is the limit.
See also: Let's Not Call Them Graphic Novels from the Fall 2003 issue.