The title might actually be more clever than the points that I’m planning to make here. A more knowledgeable scholar might be able to trace the family tree of the graphic novel and the picture book back to a common ancestor, or they might prove me wrong, but I’d like to suggest that elements that make for a successful picture book likewise apply to graphic novels.
And now to find a way to gracefully untangle my own thought process.
In Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures he starts out by defining a picture book as a story told
“mainly or entirely with pictures. When words are used, they have an auxiliary role. A picture book says in words only what the picture cannot show.”
From this it would be difficult to suggest that a graphic novel falls under the same definition, and yet anytime I come across a graphic novel that fails or is in some way leaves me wanting it is precisely because it has broken this rule.
In other words, weak graphic novels both show and tell. And almost every time I come across a graphic novel that does this it’s from a children’s book publisher or imprint full of editors who (I presume) wouldn’t have allowed such things to happen in the picture books they produce. On the other hand, graphic novels that land on the excellent end of the spectrum tend to have wordless visual passages that honor the rule of picture books and are richer for the experience.
They trust the reader, and don’t insult them by presuming they cannot understand what is going on without having it explained to them.
All of this came about because I was reading a graphic novel recently that featured a main character who was living a rich Walter Mitty-esque inner life. The premise was solid enough and sections had some nicely imagined situations, but the story was narrated by the main character throughout. The narration itself wasn’t the problem, it’s that the author didn’t trust the reader to understand what was going on in all the panels and as a result either described what could clearly be seen in the illustration or, worst of all, broke the illusion of the inner world by making reference to elements of the outer world at the same time. It wasn’t merely wordy, it was unnecessarily descriptive.
Generally speaking one is supposed to review the book as is, not as it could have been if written differently, and to determine what the author’s intent was and whether or not it was successful. I get that. But I also keep hearing the words of author Jon Scieszka echoing throughout the Twittersphere this past summer when he suggested that most picture book manuscripts could benefit from being cut.
I feel the same can be said about a great number of graphic novels intended for younger readers these days.
Anecdotally, whenever I hear children’s book authors talk about graphic novels, invariably the books they mention as touchstones are by authors who also happen to be the illustrator. American Born Chinese, Captain Underpants, Bone, Maus, Persepolis, Robot Dreams, Tintin, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Arrival. Pointing this fact out tends to get brushed aside – after all, it shouldn’t matter who the author is, as long as the lessons about what works can be gleaned. But the way illustrators are trained in the technical aspects of illustration informs the way the approach story. Illustrators think in pictures, they sketch out stories as a sequence of illustrations, they edit word and picture simultaneously, moving back and forth to find balance. They don’t tend to write stories full of sound because these tend to be difficult to illustrate, and explaining sound in an illustration is practically a failure of visual storytelling. People don’t go around registering all the things they hear, and doing the same in a graphic novel reads as overly self-conscious and weakens the story. In picture books, what is the point of the illustration if it needs the text to explain what is going on?
The better graphic novels I’ve found have a way of conveying two narratives simultaneously. There’s the text, where characters speak and expository narrative is included, and then there’s the visual story which, when it’s really working, tells a complimentary and not always consistent narrative. The silent looks between characters. The extreme focus on a detail missed by a character but not the reader. The way word and picture interrelate can create friction one moment, in harmony the next.
Shulevitz suggests that a picture book text cannot be read on the radio and be understood completely (though to be fair, Shulevitz wrote this before Daniel Pinkwater began reading picture books on NPR as a regular feature). I would argue that the same could be said in reverse of the graphic novels with regard to the text; if the story can be understood over the radio without having to describe the illustrations then what you have is a radio play in comic book form.
Graphic novels and picture books are the yin and yang of sequential art. I only wish more graphic novels for kids were as well-edited and crafted (and reviewed accordingly) as picture books tend to be.