The Perversion of the Graphic Novel and Its Refinement

As the humble comic book has graduated from the denigrated throw-away periodical to the esteemed and culturally significant “graphic novel,” the shelves of the nation’s bookstores have been increasingly polluted with the works of ambitious well-meaning comics enthusiasts who don’t understand the medium and whose perversions of it not only threaten the form but indoctrinate an audience with false perceptions: readers of such lame endeavors will have a skewed understanding of what graphic novels are and what the cartooning arts are capable of.

And SuperZelda: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald by Tiziana Lo Porto with drawings by Daniele Marotta; translated from Italian by Anthony Sugaar (176 6x8-inch pages, b/w with second color; 2011 One Peace Books paperback, $16.95) is a poster boy bad example of this defilement of the visual-verbal artform. We must stop praising such enterprises because they seem to elevate the form and start condemning them for demeaning it.

The book is meticulously researched and the research is impressively deployed: virtually every word in it comes from the novels, stories and letters of Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda and others of their jazz age milieu. For example, everything the Ernest Hemingway character in the book says when introduced is taken, verbatim, from A Moveable Feast. And the pictures throughout are based upon period photographs.

The authenticity of the biography seems beyond question. We meet Zelda Sayre as a young girl being systematically spoiled by a well-to-do family. She remains a self-indulgent brat throughout the book, meeting the author Scott Fitzgerald when he is on the cusp of becoming a celebrity. They marry in 1920 and begin partying extravagantly throughout Europe and America, supplying the Roaring Twenties with living icons of beauty, talent, extravagance, irreverence, and drunkenness. At the end of the decade, Zelda is diagnosed with schizophrenia; she will spend most of the rest of her life in mental institutions, dying in a fire that destroys one of them in 1948, having outlived her alcoholic husband by eight years.

And the book itself is an elegant artwork: a dusty blue tint enhances the black-and-white drawings, and book-jacket-like flaps lend it a pretension to published literature. But between the covers, the contents betray the pretense. Marotta is very good at drawing buildings and automobiles, but, as you might expect from an artist for whom a doorknob is an objet d’art, rendering people is a challenge beyond his capacity. Zelda and Scott change appearance page by page; Marotta manages a modicum of consistency by giving her squinty eyes almost every time and him a pointy nose. Otherwise, they could be anyone else in the book.

But the most persistent offense the book laminates onto the graphic novel genre is in its absolute failure to exploit the medium appropriately. Words and pictures should work in tandem to tell the story; in this volume, the words do most of the storytelling, and the pictures merely decorate the pages. SuperZelda is essentially an illustrated verbal narrative. A graphic novel, if it is worthy of the name, should embody the distinctive features of the comic strip arts.

The things that make comic strip art unique among the visual narrative arts are speech balloons and narrative breakdown. Speech balloons breathe life into comic strips. In all other visual narratives, characters are doomed to wordless posturing and pantomime; in comics, they speak. Moreover, including speech balloons within the pictures gives the words and pictures concurrence—the life-like illusion that the characters we see are speaking even as we see them, just as we simultaneously hear and see people in life.

If speech balloons give comic strips their peculiar life, then narrative breakdown gives that life duration, an existence beyond a moment. Narrative breakdown is to a comic strip what time is to life. In fact, “timing”—pace as well as duration—is the second of the unique ingredients of comic strip art.

In their pretension to greater literary status than comic books, graphic novels must still preserve the essential characteristics of the medium, speech balloons and narrative breakdown. While these two elements act in concert to create the world of the narrative—neither words nor pictures alone without the other presenting a complete story—pictures effectively control the pace.

Pictures must be vital to the story, supplying narrative information that is otherwise lacking in the words—what the characters look like (an obvious example) and the appearance of locale and settings. And also, through facial expression and body language, a character’s state of mind.

Speech balloons together with narrative breakdown create the story and pace it, but the telltale evidence of the graphic novel’s comics essence is when the pictures seem almost alone by themselves to control the pacing. We realize when this vital function has been abandoned, violated, when pictures, the more obvious of the two elements, merely decorate the prose. If the words control the pace, the artifact isn’t a graphic novel: it’s an illustrated prose narrative (or a prose exposition in the case of history and biography).

In SuperZelda, the pacing is controlled almost entirely—that is, from the beginning to the end—by the prose. In only a few instances—notably, in Marotta’s one-page portrayal of Zelda as a child, playing in her backyard—do the pictures pace events and tell us more than the verbiage. On this page, the medium is deployed properly.ZeldaChild Typically, however, in SuperZelda, the pictures add little or nothing to the meaning of the words—as in our next example. Zelda1

The page on the left tells us what the nearly newly-wedded Fitzgeralds Long Island house looks like; ditto the staff they hire. But the words time the narrative. The page on the right is an even more blatant instance of pictures merely garnishing the words, adding nothing to the narrative itself.

In our next example, the abuse of the artform is even more evident. Here, on the page at the left, most of the pictures repeat the information in the prose—verbal-visual double exposure. Zelda2The page on the right, however, is one of the few in the book (I might be able to count as many as half-a-dozen out of the 176, and I’ve posted two of those in this review) where pictures perform a narrative rather than a purely decorative function. Here, the pictures alone create a dramatic moment: the repetition of the first panel effectively freezes, stops, the action—just as suicide stops life. But this page is an exception; most of the book’s pages are like the three other examples at hand.

The desecration of the artform in this book consists, chiefly, in its failure to make pictures do something other than gussy up the pages, on which the prose is already excessive. We can find out a great deal about Zelda and her misfortunes in this book. But what we see, page after page, is not a graphic novel, and we must stop lauding such efforts before they corrupt the form beyond all recognition. SuperZelda is an illustrated verbal narrative, not a graphic novel.


THE PROBLEM is that the medium of a graphic novel is not well-suited for either history or biography—although it is possible to achieve some telling measure of visual-verbal blending in both.

Generally speaking, a biography’s impulse is to include all the chief details of the subject’s life. As we see in SuperZelda, the effort to include all such matters in graphic novel form effectively destroys the form. Unless the biographer expands the number of pages in his/her work to gigantic dimension, the natural impulse—the best way to achieve a manageable length—is to resort to words for telling the story, and in obeying that impulse, the biographer inevitably uses pictures only to make the pages look pretty. As a result, the pictures don’t add any narrative content. The comics form works best as a form when it can portray at some length an incident or event, an impossibility if the over-all objective is to cover all the chief events in a person’s life in as few pages as possible.

In SuperZelda, we can see at least one instance where the biographers could have exploited the visual-verbal form to better advantage. In the double-exposure page of our last example, that episode could have been narrated almost entirely in pictures. In fact, if we removed the captions on this page, we’d have a much more visually dramatic episode. Words could re-enter the narrative at the incident’s conclusion to explain the significance of the events.

To make this modification most effective, the episode should be re-imagined for two pages instead of one. Then Marotta could introduce pictures that would show Scott being star- struck, say, and another couple panels to show Zelda slowly burning up with jealousy until she does something silly.

Scott and Zelda were famous for their excessive conduct, partying and drinking and committing all sorts of recklessness. Such events are covered in the book, but usually, the biographers devote only a panel or two to portraying them. Instead of depicting fragments from several parties hither and yon, the authors could have devoted, say, two whole pages to one such extravaganza, showing the progression from drinking and conviviality to drunkenness and destruction, culminating in Zelda’s dancing in the fountain in a hotel lobby, splashing water on innocent passersby. Such a maneuver would give episodes of this kind much more vitality, making them visual-verbal exclamation points in the book and thereby emphasizing the aspects of Scott and Zelda’s life together that made them the legendary icons of the jazz age.

Most of the book could remain chiefly an illustrated prose narrative, but electing to elaborate on several episodes like those I’ve just described would bring the book more into the graphic novel genre. And a few vivid sequences of visual-verbal action would also bring the narrative to life.

In Chester Brown’s “comic strip biography” of Louis Riel, we have an excellent instance of this approach. Brown chose not to do a full biography of his subject. “Long periods of time are skipped over,” he acknowledges in a prefatory note, “—and many aspects of his life are completely ignored” in order to concentrate on “Riel’s antagonistic relationship with the Canadian government, and even that has been simplified and distorted order to make it fit into a 241-page comic strip narrative.”

Brown did precisely what I’ve been suggesting as a way of avoiding the “illustrated verbal narrative” perversion of the graphic novel form. In extracting only the most dramatic episodes of Riel’s life from his biography, Brown is able to devote several pagers to creating vivid passages of suspense and excitement, such as the one depicted in the two-page fragment at hand.  LouisRiel

Peter Bagge seems to be doing much the same sort of thing in his Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. I haven’t seen this book, but I’ve seen Sarah Boxer’s review of it at this website, and her essay is amply illustrated by pages excerpted from Bagge’s book. Those pages are a nearly perfect demonstration of how a factual biography can be constructed with pictorial pacing by resorting to a series of revealing incidents in the life of the subject—exactly what I have described in my recommendation for SuperZelda.

As an actual rather than a theoretical example of the sort of storytelling that a graphic novel should do, we’ve posted a page from Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s short story “Traffic Accident,” which was published here in 2005 in a collection of his tales, The Pushman and Other Stories. Tatsumi is considered the “grandfather of Japanese alternative comics,” coining, in 1957, the term gekiga to describe the gritty style of story he pioneered. That, for our present purpose, is neither here nor there. Tatsumi

On this page, pictures are clearly pacing the story. For much of the page, pictures are telling the story without words. Halfway down the page, words begin to clarify the man’s sexual fixation, but even then, the pictures are timing events: words clarify but do not control the rate at which events unfold.

Unhappily, Tatsumi’s manner does not prevail in many of the current manifestation of the “graphic novel.” Increasingly—as the graphic novel gains cultural respectability and market value—the precincts of the form are being invaded by the illustrated prose usurper. As we see, sadly, in Bohemians: A Graphic History, edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger (240 7.5x10.5-inch pages, b/w; 2014 Verso paperback, $16.95).

From Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde to the Harlem Renaissance in 25 illustrated narratives, this volume surveys “the moments and movements of American bohemia,” a population concentrated for much of its history in New York’s Greenwich Village and in Harlem—with occasional outcroppings elsewhere. To quote from the news release that accurately describes the book: “Since the mid-19th century, bohemians have occupied a place of opposition to both the establishment and the anti-establishment, forging social arrangements that stood contrary to prevailing bourgeois norms, especially those around sex and marriage [all hail free love, f’instance]. Bohemians have been at the forefront of movements in music, dance, literature and social life while remaining largely independent from the markets and mass culture they inspired.”

Among the bohemians whose contributions are covered—Ada Clare (the 19th century’s “Queen of Bohemia”), Victoria Woodhull, Mabel Dodge, Arturo Giovannitti (Bohemian rebel, labor champion, and poet), Claude McCay, sexologist V.F. Calverton, Carl Van Vechten (a white admirer of Harlem’s Renaissance who wrote the novel Nigger Heaven), dancers Josephine Baker, Katherine Mary Dunham and Pearl Eileen Primus; and singers Woody Guthrie and Billie Holiday.

Their lives are illuminated by Sharon Rudahl, Spain Rodriguez, Lance Took, Peter Kuper, and others.

The book is jammed with information, and I learned a lot, just thumbing from one story to whichever next one caught my eye. But although it claims kinship with the graphic novel form, it seldom permits pictures to control the narratives. Mostly, like SuperZelda, the tales are illustrated prose.

One of the most accomplished artists is Dan Steffan, who wrote and drew the longest piece in the book, “Frowning Prophet and the Smiling Revolutionary,” about photographer Alfred Stieglitz and iconoclastic artist Marcel Duchamp with Walt Kuhn, Man Ray, Georgia O’Keefe and Francis Picabia heralding the arrival of “modern art” in New York. But as you can see from two of Steffan’s 21 pages nearby, the prose sets the pace. Bohemians1

Jeffrey Lewis comes closer to the essence of the graphic novel form with his story of Woodie Guthrie that avoids lengthy captions in favor of pictorial vignettes of the folksinger’s life, a panel for every year with speech balloons conveying the essential information. Bohemians2 But the next page (from “‘The Sex Boys’ and the Libidinal Left”) with Paul Buhle’s script drawn by Matt Howarth is typical of the book’s biographies—prose pacing whatever narrative there is. (I confess that I include this page chiefly because of its 1926 cartoon by Fred Ellis, whose work I hadn’t encountered before.)

Afua Richardson’s highly decorative treatment of Josephine Baker’s life is nice to look at, but the pictures simply glamorize captions. Bohemians3Similarly, Sharon Rudahl, who draws more of the pieces in the book than anyone else, is guided by text, and in her impulse to give visual life to the narrative, she jams too much pictorial information onto every page, creating a confused hodge-podge of visuals.

Absorbing as the lives of these bohemians are, the book is, at best, only a crude approximation of the graphic novel form. But in our next review, we encounter a superb example of the graphic novel.

Slayground: Richard Stark's Parker by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke (100 6x9-inch pages, b/w with second color; 2013 IDW hardcover, $17.99) is the fourth of Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of Stark’s stories about a ruthless crook named Parker. In the title story, Parker and two others rob an armored car, but their plan is foiled when the driver wrecks their getaway car on a snowy, slippery road. Parker, unhurt, leaves his injured cohorts in the wreck and makes his way to an amusement park, closed for the winter. He holes up there and, knowing that the police will soon come for him, he prepares various booby traps. When the cops come, he learns that they are on the take and are accompanied by son of the local mob boss and his minions. The rest of the story is about how Parker eludes them, killing as many of the cops and crooks as he needs to in order to effect his escape. In a second, much shorter story, Parker pursues a fellow robber who has absconded with ill-gotten goods. After killing the culprit, Parker finds that the fellow has only his portion of the take.

As usual, Cooke is superb in managing his visual storytelling resources. The first page displayed in the accompanying visual aid depicts the conclusion of the robbery at the left. ParkerCooke1Pictures tell much of the story—pacing the unfolding events; but words add clarity. The “partner” who is hurt is the other guard in the armored car. The crook’s advice to put snow on the back of the hurt guard’s neck shows a measure of compassion. Then, the single word, “sirens,” explains why the robbers are running off at the end of the page.

In our second example, the page at the right, no words are deployed. Parker runs into one of the retail shops in the amusement park, having just killed a corrupt cop by drowning him in the pirate ship moat. Parker is wet, soaked through, and it’s freezing. The pictures are all the narrative there is here: they show the store he enters, and, once inside, we see a single shoe, then bits of clothing that Parker has left behind as he strips off the wet clothes; on the next page (not shown here), we see him huddled on the floor, naked and groaning with the cold. Here the pictures alone pace the story.

In the next two exhibits are three pages of the story’s climax. One cop has been garroted in one of Parker’s booby traps, and Parker captures the cop’s partner, forcing him to strip the wounded cop. Parker then dons the uniform and feigns disability to get by the mob boss, who has come to the amusement park to avenge the killing of his only son, whom Parker shot to death. ParkerCooke2ParkerCooke3Parker’s disguise almost works until the old man wants to inspect his alleged wounds.

Words, as usual, clarify what the pictures are revealing, and on the third page of this sequence, the old man’s words—“son of a bitch!”—reveal that he’s made Parker. And his shouts in the next panel confirm his awareness. The rest of the sequence is related almost entirely in visual terms.

Throughout the episode, pictures control the pacing. Cooke’s adaptations of Stark’s Parker stories are typically terse in the verbal dimension. Words and pictures together tell the story, but the pacing is pictorial.

Even on the first page of this 3-page series, pictures shoulder most of the storytelling burden. We see the nearly unconscious cop on his back and his partner looking at him. Then we see a gun held to the cop’s head; the story moves forward. In the next panel, silhouettes even without clarifying verbiage show the cop giving up his weapon. And the next two panels show Parker in control.

Pictures pace the story. The contrast to the way pictures work in SuperZelda and The Bohemians could not be sharper. Cooke is doing a graphic novel; the perpetrators of these other two works are illustrating prose narratives. Instructive—even entertaining—as the other two works are, they are not graphic novels, and calling them graphic novels does the artform a disservice bordering on fraud.

Before I climb off this soapbox, I have one more example of a graphic novel as it should be done—Jules Feiffer’s Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel (158 8.5x11-inch pages, color; 2014 Norton/Liveright hardcover, $27.95; due out in August).

In creating his first graphic novel, Feiffer set out to celebrate the noir novels and movies that he loved as a teenager— The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce”—invoking also the adventure tales he found in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and in Will Eisner’s Spirit. Although this is his first graphic novel, Feiffer is scarcely a novice at telling long stories. Melding the skills he developed as playwright and screenwriter as well as cartoonist, Feiffer has successfully created just the sort of tangled tale of deception, dual identities, sinister motives, multiplying murders and shocking family secrets that Hammett and Chandler perfected.

“Working in the noir form for the first time,” Feiffer said in an online New Yorker interview, “I began fooling with a story line, not really knowing where I was going, leaving behind the sketchy line drawings I had become known for and the satiric political and social ideas that made up my subject matter for over forty years. ... I tried to write and draw in celebration of the works that meant so much to me as a young man, areas that I had steadfastly avoided up till now because I didn’t think I was the right artist to draw the story I wanted to tell.”

The story begins in 1933 and ends in 1943, taking us from the West Coast to the South Pacific in the closing years of World War II. At first, the protagonist seems to be Annie Hannigan, a teenager, who, with her friend Artie Folsom, opens the book by dancing in her livingroom and chanting that she wants to kill her mother, whom she hates for several reasons, chiefly the girl’s conviction that her mother doesn’t love her.

Meanwhile, Elsie, her mother, is working as a secretary for a dissolute and drunken private detective, Neil Hammond, whom she hopes to cajole into finding who killed her husband, Sam, a policeman who died in the line of duty. But this scheme is interrupted by a tall blonde who shows up and hires Hammond to find another tall blonde, who she says is a former teacher. But she’s not: she’s her sister.

We don’t learn that until the second part of the book, all of which takes place during WWII. Before the first part concludes, however, Hammond’s client (who we’ll call Ruby Taylor for the time being)—or perhaps it’s the fugitive tall blonde; hard to say—discovers him passed out in her hotel room, wearing her panties, and she shoots and kills him.

When we arrive at WWII, we’re in Hollywood where Annie is a producer and writer of a radio comedy show called, perhaps, “Shut Up, Artie,” an expression she used often when she and Artie were teenagers together. Annie and Elsie are estranged, still, and Elsie is a vice president in Pinnacle Studios, charged with managing the public images of various actors, including the matinee idol Hugh Patton. Artie, now a heroic captain in the marines, fighting on a jungled island in the Pacific, brings a suit for defamation of character against the radio program. Annie joins a USO show going to Artie’s island in order to negotiate with him. Also along on the trip is Ruby Taylor, whose name is actually Mae, and she hires a former body guard to accompany her and the rest of troupe, instructing him to wound or otherwise disable Patton so her boyfriend, the erstwhile prize fighter Eddie Longo whose dazzling footwork earned him the nickname “the dancing master,” can get a part in a forthcoming movie that otherwise Patton would doubtless get.

I’m leaving out more than a few embellishments and plot twists, but it doesn’t matter: you need to read the book for a full appreciation of what Feiffer has engineeered; besides, from what I’ve said thus far, you can probably tell that the whole shebang is getting more and more complicated, over-laid and interleaved in typical noir fashion. By the time Fieffer finishes, one of the supposed male characters turns out to be the twin sister of the missing tall blonde (Dorothea, who, wielding a baseball bat back in 1933, saved Annie and Artie from being apprehended in a shop-lifting episode and then goes on to become a famous singer, always wearing a veil), the body guard with aspirations to be a hit man is killed by Mae, who carries on the killing spree when she subsequently shoots her boyfriend the dancing master when he comes home with an Oscar.

Artie, fatally wounded when the Japanese attack during the USO show—in a crescendo of carefully orchestrated misunderstandings —dies in Annie’s arms, and Annie and Elsie achieve reconciliation. Elsie is only one of the mothers alluded to in the book’s title: the other is the mother of the twin blondes and the murderous Mae, who may also have killed her mother, who was always beating her. Sam’s death remains unexplained, his killer uncaught.

While this summary may appear to be a tidy synopsis, it isn’t: it’s missing too many of Feiffer’s refinements and layers. But no summary can adequately represent this skillfully constructed story. The pleasure in reading the book comes in part from admiring the artful way he brings together all the errant asides, knitting these seemingly loose threads into a knotty conclusion—exactly as Hammett or Chandler might. And Feiffer enlivens the otherwise bloody proceedings with an occasional glint of humor (grim, often, and usually satirical on the plane of parody).

In one of the several expository reconciliations that conclude the book, Elsie, now blind as a result of one of the shoot-outs on the island, learns that her boyfriend is actually a woman. But Elsie insists on continuing their relationship. The exchange between them is among the best moments of noir Feiffer:

“No mustache?” Elsie says.


“I’ll miss that mustache,” Elsie sighs. “You have tits, I suppose.”


“That’s why you never undressed or let me touch you intimately. I assumed it was some movie star I-don’t-like-to-be-touched affectation, and it might take years for me to wear you down,” Elsie says. “Big tits or little tits?”


“Oh, dear.”


“I like small tits.”

“Elsie ...”

“We’ll work it out,” sighs Elsie.

Feiffer says that for this project he abandoned his familiar sketchy style of drawing, but his mannerisms persevere, and the imagery is recognizably Feiffer. While his loose and limber renderings are more than adequate for telling his story, many of the women look too much alike. And there are lots of women—five, three sisters, of whom two are twins (that doesn’t help in distinguishing one from the other), and the other two are mother and daughter, presumably with family resemblances. But I’m working off an “advance copy” of the book, and it’s in black-and-white; the final version, due in August, is supposed to be in color, so maybe different hair color will help set the women apart.

Feiffer’s hesitancy about his ability to tell this story is gainsaid by the visual evidence: the work as a whole is a superb example of the cartooning arts.

Typically with Feiffer, some passages are more verbal than visual, reminding us that in his famed satirical cartoons, his characters talked all the time and condemned themselves with their own talk. But in this work, he goes far beyond talk, exploiting the pictorial capacities of the form, even deploying page layout to enhance his storytelling. And most of the story is paced by the pictures—the narrative breakdown and the images in the panels—not by the speeches. Captions are nowhere to be seen.

In our first visual aid, we see Elsie, who finds a way to deal with a clutch of mashers (would-be rapists?) who have followed her to a liquor store where she goes to buy a bottle for Neil Hammond. The pictures of this two-page spread set the pace at which the incident transpires.


On the left in our next example, we go into a saloon where Hammond confronts an annoying fellow habitue on the next barstool.Feiffer2 In laying out the page, Feiffer imaginatively deploys the bar itself as a composition device. And in the last panel at the lower right, he uses perspective and foreshortening to emphasize Hammond’s superior fire power in the confrontation. On the page at the right, Feiffer abandons the panel grid format to depict the boxing match that introduces Eddie “the dancing master” Longo in a series of pictures that effectively portray a prize fight—and handily evoke the sport’s imagery as immortalized by famed sports cartoonist Willard Mullin.

In our last examples, we begin on the left with Annie learning that her radio show is being sued by Artie. Feiffer3Words are yoked to pictures to depict the extent of her rage: pictures pace the action, and words clarify the meaning of the pictures. On the page at the right, Annie finds the tall silent blonde who saved her and Artie in the shop-lifting episode many years before. The woman now makes a living as a singer: singing songs is the only “speaking” she does. Seeing her onstage, Annie pursues her to her dressing room and pounds on the door, screaming. Finally, in a silent panel that shows both characters at dramatic full length, the woman relents and lets Annie in—into her dressing room and into her life. Again, the verbal and the visual blend to tell the story, but the pictures control the pace of the unfolding event.

The storyteller here—as in the Parker graphic novel and the biographies of Louis Riel and the Margaret Sanger—is a cartoonist. A cartoonist thinks in words and pictures simultaneously, but the pictures set the pace. Too often of late, graphic novels are produced by people who are not cartoonists: typically, they are essentially writers, wordsmiths, taking advantage of this new commercially successful storytelling medium, the graphic novel. They write their stories and then get artists to illustrate them.

The results are what the eager marketplace accepts as graphic novels. But in these imitations, the form is perverted for momentary commercial advantage. We must stop crediting such enterprises as creations in the form that makes pictures a vital part of the storytelling.