09 October 2009

American Comics and the Fantastic

Yesterday I suggested that Matt Phelan’s graphic novel The Storm in the Barn is garnering better reviews than we’d expect if the same magical plot—child fixes the Dust Bowl drought by conquering the embodiment of Rain—had appeared in prose. (Or in a verse novel, as Karen Hesse used for her Dust Bowl novel, Out of the Dust.)

I listed a couple of elements that might make a fantastic story seem more appropriate: age of reader, gender of protagonist. But I left out the biggie: the fact that The Storm in the Barn is in comics form.

American culture has more fantastic expectations for comics than for other forms of print storytelling, and is therefore quicker to accept supernatural or unreal elements when they appear in panels.

First of all, comics can put fantastic events right in front of our eyes. It’s easier to suspend one’s disbelief when one is seeing a man fly, a duck talk, or the embodiment of Rain fighting with a Kansas farm boy.

In a prose novel, and especially in a verse novel, writing about the Rain as a character would be taken as a metaphor. (“That’s called ‘personification,’” the rhetoricians would say. “And that dialogue is an ‘apostrophe.’ And it’s still going on. And on.”) But when we see the Rain’s angry face and clutching hands, we accept it as a character within the story.

Second and probably more important, American comics magazines have historically been dominated by fantastic genres: superheroes, horror, monsters, science fiction, funny animals. Of course, there have always been American comics that stick to a realistic world: stories of romance, crime, teenage life, and so on. But in the US, forms of the fantastic have dominated and to a great extent come to be seen as the form’s default setting.

Even the most serious topics can thus get a fantastic treatment in American comics. Take the work of Art Spiegelman. Maus adopts elements of the talking-animal genre to dramatize the Holocaust. In the Shadow of No Towers draws from Winsor McCay and other comics geniuses to depict Spiegelman’s psychological, philosophical, and political struggles after the terrorist attack on New York in 2001.

The first graphic novel to crash the ALA prizes for younger readers, Gene Luen Yang’s Printz Award-winner American-Born Chinese, intertwines mythology, memoir, and what looks at first like an unrelated tale of growing up in a way that would be even harder, and possibly more off-putting, in prose.

(Eleanor Davis’s Stinky, a Geisel Honor Book, offers a monster and uses comics tools for “showing the invisible.” But that book’s not such a useful example of contrast because its traditional analogues—picture books and early readers—often have elements of the fantastic as well.)

The comics medium, I posit, let Phelan tell a story set in the Dust Bowl that would have been impossible, or at least greeted quite differently, if he’d tried it in prose.

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