I’m currently reading Pride of Baghdad, written by Brian K Vaughan and with artwork by Niko Henrichon. It’s a thought-provoking story about freedom and oppression, using the device of having a pride of lions escape from Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid. Inspired by a true story, it’s received lavish praise which it thoroughly deserves.
Initially, I discounted graphic novels as being glorified comics. Then, I noticed that the film The Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks, was based on a graphic novel. I enjoyed reading it and saw how the moody, gloomy artwork inspired the noir look of the movie. This made sense, as film-makers have long used storyboards to lay out the plot in a visual form.
I’ve gone on to read many more graphic novels. I tend to avoid superheroes in lurex bodysuits, though the Brian K Vaughan’s anarchic Runawaysgang are fun—imagine having supervillains for parents, who neglected you and whose evil plans you tried to thwart.
Instead, I look for graphic novels telling tales of real life. Will Eisner, Harvey Pekar, Alison Bechdel, Robert Crumb, his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Daniel Clowes all have something to say about the human condition.
In the fantasy genre, I lovedKrampus: The Yule Lord, by Brom, which admittedly is more prose than pictures, but the artwork is astonishing and who could resist a story where Father Christmas is the villain?
I’ve just requested The Arab of the Futureby Riad Satouff from my local library, which might help explain the political turmoil of the Arab world to me better than any news report. Graphic novels can be effective in tackling politics, as the stunning Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, showed about Iran during the Islamic revolution.
Literary classics have been turned into graphic novels too: I recently read Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usherand I liked the graphic novel version of Jane Eyre.
I’d argue that anyone raised in the 20th-century is so immersed in moving images, that it’s impossible for them to read or write a book without picturing the action as a film. In a way, we’re all cameras, recording what we see every day in our memories, but the proliferation of smartphones means that snaps and videos have become an interface—one that doesn’t necessarily aid an understanding of events—it captures a moment but obscures context.
I first became aware of the power of graphic novels when I readThe Road to Perdition, written by Max Alan Collins, after noticing that the 2002 Hollywood movie adaptation had been based upon it.
In the last few years, I’ve borrowed about 100 graphic novels from my local library. I’m fairly averse to superheroes in Lycra bodysuits, constantly fretting about practicalities…like how do they go to the loo. One unexpected boon of graphic novels is as a reminder of, or an introduction to, classic novels.
Another graphic representation of a story is through storyboarding a film project, a technique that’s been around since the 1930s, with key scenes drawn resembling the illustrations of a comic. Seeing illustrations of action yet to be filmed helps set designers, cameramen, sound and lighting technicians and the director to plan what’s needed.
When writing stories, I sometimes visualise how a scene would be filmed, or at least drawn for a storyboard or graphic novel. I’ve deliberately written my Cornish Detective novels in such a way as they’d transpose to a television adaptation. Maybe it’s a consequence of growing up in a household dominated by photographic images, for my father was a noted industrial photographer (for British Aerospace—many publicity shots of Concorde were taken by him) and I quickly came to memorise events in a visual way, sometimes altering camera angles and lighting levels, while another part of my brain churned out words for the script.
As an example of how visual artists adapted the written word, look at Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, where the protagonist Pip first meets Magwitch, an escaped convict, when visiting the graves of his parents and brothers; later, unknown to Pip, Magwitch becomes his benefactor. In the novel, their meeting is described in this way:
“A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.”
The graphic novel version adapted by Jen Green, published by Classical Comics and illustrated by John Stokes, pictures their first encounter this way:
Film director David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of the novel is highly atmospheric, with great use of sound, including bird calls and moving vegetation.
In my last Cornish Detective novel, I wrote a comical car chase scene, which takes place through Cornish lanes that are only 10′ wide, too narrow to allow two cars to pass side by side, so every few hundred yards there are passing places carved into the banks. The coppers in their patrol car are pursuing thieves driving a Ford Transit van. Lanes around here are not only narrow, with grass growing down the middle of the tarmac (untouched by tyres), but also winding with many blind bends, so the chase never exceeds 30 m.p.h. Every so often, the baddies slam on the brakes and reverse towards the police car, forcing them to accelerate backwards to avoid a collision. I started to visualise the pursuit as an excerpt from The Simpsons or Wacky Races! Cartoon violence concluded the chapter when the criminals put up futile resistance more for the sake of form than any hope of getting away.
Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, gave some great advice about how to describe a scene through visualising it, putting in what you want a reader to experience.
How do you ‘see’ your book, as you write it?
If you’re using a multiple viewpoint, do you pan around the scene?
If writing an epic fantasy or historical tale do you imagine scenes as large oil paintings?
Do cartoonish images add to the humour of what you’re writing?