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Going Graphic


Children are usually introduced to storytelling and learning to read through picture books, only gradually outgrowing reliance on the visual and gaining mastery of the textual. Reorienting myself to bookstores I once frequented but mostly avoided in these pandemic years, I realized that children's sections helped us become aware of our grandchildren's aging. Where we once browsed picture books, we later browsed various fantasy or adventure or sports series, depending on which grandchild we were shopping for. Occasionally we took all the kids to bookstores to make their own choices—how could we be sure which Harry Potter novel or Wings of Fire adventure they hadn't yet read? Eventually, one by one, they wandered off into teen or young adult sections where we were less familiar with titles and authors. I assumed that, just as I had, they'd outgrow books with illustrations and read narratives presented solely in words. But times changed—one familiar bookstore relocated their voluminous offerings in manga and graphic novels unavoidably close to the restrooms, the last thing you see going in, the first thing you see coming out.


I haven't bought a newspaper in a long time, so can't report on what's become of Sunday funnies or daily comics pages. I read them regularly as a child, adventure stories in particular: "Terry and the Pirates," "Steve Canyon," "Prince Valiant," "The Phantom," "Tarzan," "The Lone Ranger," many of them also accessible on radio or in comic books. Often on Sundays my father took my sister, my brother, and me down to Kipp's Cigar Store to pick up a copy of the Buffalo Courier-Express and buy each of us a comic book. I first favored superheroes and western adventures but eventually began collecting Classics Illustrated, the comic series offering illustrated versions of long-established novels and epic poems. I especially preferred those with swashbuckling or frontier themes: The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, The Knights of the Round Table, The Talisman, The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, Men of Iron, Two Years Before the Mast, and the like.


Cinemascope films then popular often emphasized historic spectacle, and I bought comic book versions of them as well—the comic version of the film Helen of Troy disappointed me because it changed the movie's ending and didn't square with The Iliad in my Classics Illustrated version. Classics Illustrated convinced me that serious stories could be told visually—I also saw any movie adapted from an adventure novel or epic tale—and they often sent me to the literary works they illustrated, enhancing my reading.


In recent years, I've frequently read books that my grandchildren read first or were reading when I visited. Some were clearly designed for young children—A Treasury of Curious George and Sandra Boynton's Snoozers—and some were clearly trafficking the market for print works in series—graphic adaptations of the Wings of Fire adventure novels, for example—while others merited attention for visually exploring aspects of young people's lives—Raina Telgemeier's graphic novels like Smile, Drama, and Ghosts, or Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. The New York Times Book Review offers monthly lists of Children's Bestsellers (Middle Grade Hardcover, Young Adult Hardcover, Picture Books, and Series) and a separate list of Graphic Books and Manga, all aimed at younger readers.


As it happens, long before I started reading my grandchildren's graphic books, my affection for graphic storytelling had been fostered by a gift copy of Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, published in 1991 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the same year Maus II was published, concluding the story based on Spiegelman's father's experiences as a Jew in Germany during the Holocaust. The Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other nationalities as other animals. The concept challenged some critics, but most readers found it powerful and absorbing, and it opened the door to the concept of the graphic narrative or graphic novel.


The aftermath has been a highly effective and affecting range of graphic narratives, including novels, biographies, and memoirs. Marjane Satrapi's powerful Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2004) and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2005), set in Iran, were eventually made into an animated film and, like Spiegelman's Maus, published in a single volume. Alison Bechdel's first graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was published in 2007 and its sequel, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, its title playing off P. D. Eastman's classic children's book, in 2013; her third memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength was published this year. All the books I've mentioned are engaging, expressive, and as powerful as many of the recent text-bound memoirs I've read. I have a feeling we'll keep going graphic for a while.

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