Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life by Paul Gravett
I first encountered comics historian Paul Gravett being interviewed for the DVD The Mindscape of Alan Moore. That led me to investigating his two compendia, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life (Aurum Press, 2005), and Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics (2004, Laurence King Publishing Ltd.). Oddly, in the US the book’s byline is “Everything You Need to Know,” while in the UK it’s “Stories to Change Your Life.” In addition to these two works, Gravett has edited numerous other books and has an extensive website that includes reviews, various media interviews with Gravett, and links to other sites. Gravett’s site is tagged extensively, making it very user friendly, with the exception of a search field. This post is concerned solely with Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life.
Happily, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life begins with the first two pages reprinting an absurdist cartoon initially published in the New York Times Magazine, authored by Chester Brown. In it, a New York Times Magazine staff member is interviewing Brown. Much to the featured talent’s indignation, the interviewer turns into a duck halfway through the interview. For a respected art form, Brown informs us, this is all too much!
Subsequently, Gravett includes a section entitled “Things to Hate About Comics,” a kind of FAQ for the absolute beginner who may challenge the medium by resorting to selected blanket statements such as “Comics are just funnybooks”; “They take no time to read”; “Comics leave nothing for the imagination”; “They’re so depressing”; etc. For each of these criticisms, a detailed response is provided, designed to dismantle the arguments.
Gravett’s Top Thirty
The third chapter in the book is called Stories to Change Your Life. Gravett catalogues a tremendous cross-section of works available in English, listing thirty selections up front that resonated strongly with him upon a first reading, and which he considers among his favourites. The list bears inclusion:
- The Airtight Garage (Moebius)
- Maus (Art Spiegelman)
- The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller)
- When the Wind Blows (Raymond Briggs)
- Palomar (Gilbert Hernandez)
- Watchmen (Alan Moore)
- The Frank Book (Jim Woodring)
- My Troubles with Women (Robert Crumb)
- Cerebus (Dave Sim)
- Scene of the Crime (Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, Sean Philips)
- The Nikopol Trilogy (Enki Bilal)
- A Contract with God (Will Eisner)
- It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken (Seth)
- American Splendor (Harvey Pekar et al)
- Palestine (Joe Sacco)
- From Hell (Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell)
- Black Hole (Charles Burns)
- Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
- Lost Girls (Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie)
- Buddha (Osama Tezuka)
- Sin City (Frank Miller)
- Strange Embrace (David Hine)
- Barefoot Gen (Kejii Nakawaza)
- Epileptic (David B.)
- Gemma Bovery (Posy Simmonds)
- Corto Maltese (Hugo Pratt)
- V for Vendetta (Alan Moore and David Lloyd)
- The Sandman (Neil Gaiman et al)
- Locas (Jaime Hernandez)
- Jimmy Corrigan (Chris Ware)
Since this list only spans up to the year 2004, there are other titles that could rightly be added. Gravett has accounted for the vast majority of these titles in top twenty lists appearing by year on his website. Perhaps a new version of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life will be revised in the future, or an additional volume will be created, featuring more recent works. As a primer, I think that Gravett’s selection for the most part reflects whatever canon is beginning to establish itself among graphic novel artists, writers, cartoonists, and historians. But the beauty of the book is not the extent to which the author’s selection may or may not correspond with the viewpoints of others; it is the fact that Gravett makes no qualms with his starting point being entirely his own. In so many words, Gravett is telling the reader up front, “Here are my favourites, and here’s why.”
Out of the thirty books on Gravett’s list, I have read twenty, and even if they would not all necessarily make it onto my own top thirty list, at least half would. Even for those books that I have read but would not personally recommend, I recognize their contribution to the evolution of the medium, and as such I respect Gravett’s decision to profile them.
Every one of the titles in Gravett’s top thirty is given a two-page spread. A whole architecture has been created for the presentation of these works, as well as other graphic novels that have been identified as sharing similar themes. The left-hand page of each spread includes a full size reproduction from whichever book is being featured, and the right-hand page includes four smaller pages that further illustrate the balance of text and artwork, pacing, and the themes that can be found in the work. Text columns provide context to the excerpts that have been selected from each publication, as well as imparting background information, designed to enrich the reader’s appreciation and understanding of the book.
As mentioned, for each featured work allocated two-pages in Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life, additional titles are also included that share related themes and subject matter. Each of these additional works is limited to a half-page reproduction of a two-page spread from the graphic novel, enough of a sample to give a sense of the artistic flavour of the publication. Generally, a two-paragraph description accompanies each of these “supplementary” selections.
Each chapter in Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life revolves around what might broadly be described as a graphic novel genre or thematic motif.
Among the categories featured in the chapters that follow are:
- graphic memoir/childhood stories
- graphic memoir/life stories
The chapters begin with a one to three page text overview that provides generous historical context and anecdotes. The chapter introductions are accompanied by a list of ten additional graphic novels that may be of interest to the reader, with a description of each of these books summed up in a pithy phrase. There is plenty of evidence detailing how all of Gravett’s selections are examples of innovation and the evolution of the form.
Art can make or break a graphic novel for the reader, and Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life is resplendent with examples in both black and white and colour, enough for a person to tell at a glance whether he or she finds the artwork in a selection appealing.
One facet of the layout used in Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life that confused me was the use of the same font and format in headings used to present descriptions of graphic novels featured in the top thirty two-page spreads, and to present the titles of works identified as “following in the footsteps of” the top thirty. I was unclear as to whether the headings for the latter descriptions were the books’ titles, or whether they were simply thematically inspired headings. For the top thirty listings, the books’ titles appeared in a box at the base of the first page of the spread. However, no such box was included for the works following. In addition, no reference to the publication date and the publisher was provided, making deciphering whether these were the titles of graphic novels or just thematic headings that much more difficult. Perhaps I’m being thick here; but a quick scan of the content did not allow me to decipher this conundrum quickly. And when consulting the pages listed in the Acknowledgments section, I noticed that the titles of each book did not accompany the publication information. A brief note at the beginning of the Acknowledgments indicates,
Copyright credits are listed below by their page number in each chapter. When there is more than one copyright on a single page, these are listed clockwise starting with A from the top left. Copyright holders’ names are given first as the creator(s) and/or publishers. Creators’ names are followed, where applicable, by the names of the book’s publishers. If the book has been translated into English, any additional copyright of the translation is indicated by “T.” Where there are different editions, American publishers are given first, followed by Britain (188).
That’s a lot of rules to remember while reading credits in what must be a six-point font!
As mentioned above, one conspicuous absence from Graphic Novels—Stories to Change Your Life is any reference to the publishers the works featured in the book, up until the Acknowledgments page. In the “Resources” section at the end of the book, Gravett instructs any reader interested in finding out who published a particular graphic novel to consult the acknowledgements. Personally, I think that noting the publisher of a book up front for a reader when referring to it is a way of adding an additional layer of understanding to the work. Perhaps the attentive reader would note that many innovative graphic novels of interest to him or her have been printed by, let’s say, Drawn & Quarterly. Publishers exercise tremendous influence over the success or failure of a graphic novel, and as such their role in the production, distribution and marketing of the book ought not be relegated to a miniscule listing at the end of the volume.
Keywords are included at the bottom of each page of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life, “linking” each previewed selection to others containing similar and/or related themes. Though in theory I found this an interesting approach to exploring the subject matter, referencing page numbers addressing particular themes did not inspire me as a reader and consumer of the information to “surf” the book non-linearly. Interestingly, the keywords running throughout Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life do not also appear in the book’s index, making them that much more difficult to search through in the event that one were to search for a particular theme after reading through all of the material. In a Web-based environment, these themes could be rendered as easily searchable tags. In a print-based format, however, which is by necessity linear (except for the boldest postmodern experiments), I believe that the inclusion of these keywords is not entirely effective.
Gravett has read insanely widely when it comes to comics, and the inclusion of European and Asian works is most welcome. Thematically, Gravett covers a lot of ground, and especially for a less familiar reader of graphic novels, this is the greatest strength of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life. One of the main reasons that some of the books on Gravett’s list would not make it onto my own is precisely because there are genres that he includes that are not of primary interest to me—for example, crime and humour books. But for the purposes of introducing the lay reader to the wide range of forms that graphic novels can assume, this work is a masterful overview.