Archive for the ‘graphic novels’ Category


Though I hope this isn’t the first you’ve heard of it, the Cybils Awards were announced today. I am writing this post in advance so I don’t know all of what won in any category except one – Graphic Novels – and I only know that because I was on the judging panel. Yes, again. What can I say, I like graphic novels and have long been a supporter of them as a “legitimate” reading experience for kids.

But instead of talking about the specific finalists and winners I want to talk a little about a different kind of decision being made with regards to graphic novels in the world of children’s publishing, a question of what gets published and why.

I’ve worked in bookstores the better part of the last decade and I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of books for all age kids that liberally get lumped together in the category of “graphic novels.” One of the reigning deans in the field, Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, defines the graphic novel as “a long comic book that needs a bookmark and wants to be reread.” On the surface, this is a fairly inclusive definition and I suspect Spiegelman prefers that inclusion over taut ideological divisions that would perhaps attempt to separate (and forever brand) “good” from “bad.” But there is a sharp divide over the general quality of what is out there and surprisingly a large number of adults who read for children tend to let their guard down because they do not feel qualified to judge graphic novels. I’ve even heard one person suggest that the only person who could judge a good graphic novel from a bad one was another graphic novelist.

Hogwash, I say.

Since we’re talking primarily about books aimed at a young audience here I would counter that it’s just as easy to judge the quality of a graphic novel just as you would a middle grade or young adult novel… or a movie or a TV show or any other storytelling medium. For some, the inclusion of pictures as part of the storytelling seems to stir up some long-buried anxieties over whether or not a drawing style is “good,” whether one can judge based on the idea of artists as somehow more gifted than mere mortals. In truth, wither the book is in a comic panel format (graphic novel), an illustrated story format (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), or a words and picture format (picture books), the same criteria can be employed.

Does the main character have a goal or desire?
Do they face struggled that need to be overcome?
Have they been changed in some way in the process?
Does the reader gain understanding and insight from the narrative, even if the main character doesn’t?

These questions can be answered easily without the aid of a degree in fine art, but far too often I hear of people responding positively to a graphic novel based almost entirely on an emotional response: it was funny, humorous, well-illustrated, beautifully presented. It’s almost like the nervous laughter of literary criticism – if you don’t know how to analyze the story, talk about the pictures!

In the last couple of years I have talked with people about graphic novels showered with praise that I felt would have fallen flat had they been told in a more traditional novel format. In fact, I suspect that editors would have passed on these stories had they not been illustrated as comics. This idea that comics are somehow a leveler of quality, that pictures can make up for weaknesses in narrative, is what I find most troubling. I mean, here we are looking at a great opportunity to bring more young people into the reading fold through graphic novels but we do them a disservice by giving them substandard stories.

Why does this happen? I suspect it’s an editorial situation. If there is a consistency in the division between better and lesser graphic novels that divide is easily (though not universally) a question of publisher. Publishers who specialize in comics and graphic novels are overall much better than those for whom graphic novels are a sideline. First Second, Kitchen Sink, TOON, Oni Press, among others, these publishers tend to get it right, their editorial decisions on what to publish are clearly defined by a house style, a house perspective, and a level of quality that is visible from title to title. Publishers who have, in recent years, jumped on the bandwagon put out novel-length cartoon books that feel like the house is simply out to make a buck. The one exception I’ll note here is Scholastic and their Graphix imprint who seem to have a knack for catching lightning in a bottle.

I am not suggesting that graphic novels be deathly dull or pedantic, or that they take a more literary perspective, but I am asking for fewer of these books I call “cartoons” and more books with actual stories to them. These cartoon books could just as easily be storyboards for shows on the Cartoon Network. They have stock, near stereotypical characters, tired situations straight from old sitcoms, and their resolution either comes in the form a punchline or a tacked-on moral. The narrative arc of these stories is as two-dimensional as the characters who get pushed around inside them, and yet these books have glowing testimonials splashed on their covers from other writers.

So on this holiday dedicated to love, I propose we pause and enjoy books – all books – for what they can give us, and especially to what they can give younger readers. Let’s celebrate the winners of all Awards recently doled out and speak glowingly of the book and its future in all its forms.

Then tomorrow, lets all hunker down to the hard work of asking for publishers, editors, and storytellers alike to make better decisions about the quality of storytelling they produce.

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I think, I hope, we’ve moved beyond the question as to whether or not comics and graphic novels are legitimate reading for kids and teens. But just in case another case needs to be made, or should you find yourself needing just one more piece of evidence to get the last word, I’m throwing this idea out there:

Comics existed before most people even owned books.

So the word itself, cartoon, comes from the Italian cartone which was the stiff paperboard Renaissance artists used to sketch out their paintings. Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of cartoons. All those frescos in the churches, they began as cartoons drawn on the walls. Historically, the cartoon was a representative drawing done in preparation of a finished work. These cartoons were illustration, plain and simple, and they came from a long line of visual representation starting with those cave paintings in the south of France.

You see, man’s earliest attempts to communicate story came in pictographs. The pictures, spread across cave walls, told a sequential narrative about The Great Hunt or The Battle for Berries or Hunter Tripping on Rocks. These forerunners of the cartoon predate cuneiform and hieroglyphs and other forms of symbolic language. The pictures told the story in much the same way that a wordless picture book or graphic novel does today. Depending on the sophistication of their brains, it would be curious to take a modern wordless picture book back to cave-dwelling man and see if they understood it.

Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the cave paintings and fresco sketches cartoons they are nonetheless historical artifacts that show that there was a way to “read” before there were words. Up until the Renaissance these cartoons were historical in nature (the Greeks and Romans would illustrate battles from Mythology, they believed them to be historical at some level), but I recently came across what might truly be the genesis of the graphic novel in The Bayeux Tapestry.

Art history majors (and anyplace where the arts are still considered important and taught) know The Bayeux Tapestry to be an illustrated telling of the Norman Conquest and The Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066. The Tapestry itself dates to the 1400s which easily predates the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spigelman and the groundbreaking work by the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner, by a good 500 years. Cartoons and the sequential narrative are not new.

Last week I was reminded of this when the website Open Culture featured an animated version of The Bayeux Tapestry. I don’t often post media within the blog, but this is worth the diversion.

The tapestry itself is a collection of narrative strips – or panels, to use a modern comic term – that read from left to right and top to bottom, just as if you were reading a book. Because you are, you’re reading a graphic novel from 1476, and the best part about it, it’s non-fiction! It’s not only a cartoon, it’s historical!

I hope this puts a cork in the comics-aren’t-reading argument so we can move on to more important discussions. Like what makes a good comic or graphic novel – and why are there so many mediocre ones out there for kids these day?

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In case you’ve forgotten your middle grade math, the headline translates to Valentine’s Day plus Graphic Novels equals True Love Always. Admittedly a little silly, but this was the year the graphic novel panel essentially agreed on the winners out the gate. That can either be viewed as a unified affirmation of what was good or, more cynically, that there was only one clear choice in each category surrounded by fluff that made the decision inevitable. The truth is probably located somewhere in between.

But first, a little business. If you haven’t done so already, got check out the winners of this year’s Cybils Awards.

Now, there’s plenty I can say about some of the choices in the other categories, most of it surprise about the number of books that weren’t on my radar, but I was on the Graphic Novel panel this year and will contain my comments, briefly, to our selections.

In the elaborate (not) process I use to determine my rankings, I actually had a tie between Anya’s Ghost and Level Up. I would have been happy to have either book as the winner, but here’s the thing about Anya’s Ghost that gives it the edge for me: I had a hard time articulating what it was about it that made me like it so damn much. I understand the mechanics of storytelling, sequential narrative, illustration, and the sort of stories that I like but in the end I was at a loss to articulate it. I felt bad for the publisher, First Second, who sent me an advance copy of the book practically a year ago because I felt like I owed them a review on my blog. I still do, as far as I’m concerned, and maybe I can finally do that. Not today, not here, but soon.

In short, Anya’s Ghost felt like the most complete graphic novel, most satisfying in terms of narrative arc, balance of humor and seriousness, light and dark, and was the most novel-like of the entries.

In the middle grade category things were a little more interesting. For me, mind you. Two of the books I felt sort of disqualified themselves because they didn’t belong in the graphic novel category at all – Wonderstruck is very clearly a middle grade book and should not have even made it to the first round judges, similarly Nursery Rhyme Comics was an anthology and a picture book for older readers, but not a middle grade graphic novel. These personal disqualifications should not be taken as a knock against their quality – indeed, I would have loved to see Nursery Rhyme Comics considered in the picture book category as a finalist – but it did not belong, thus narrowing the field.

A third book, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, wasn’t even mentioned as a possible finalist in the category by any of the other panelists. I can’t speak for the others, but I found elements of this book troubling at the content level. Throughout the process I have deliberately kept myself from seeking out other reviews so as not to pollute my opinions, but I hope to work this all out in a review and then see what others have said.

With three titles eliminated all that was left was to decide between was Zita the Spacegirl and Sidekicks. The short answer here is that Zita had a lot more going for it in terms of humor and adventure, and by comparison Sidekicks felt slight. The best I can articulate, it was a little like putting any generic comic book adaptation of a Cartoon Network show up against Jeff Smith’s Bone books. With that in mind it wasn’t hard to decide that my first pick was…

Nursery Rhyme Comics.


Yes, despite the fact that I don’t think anthology comic collections should be considered graphic novels (any more than a short story anthology should be considered a novel) it was, by far, a much better quality product. But in the end I had no desire to defend or attempt to justify a variance in my own personal criteria when I was going to vote strongly against Wonderstruck if necessary. And as an aside, even if I did consider Wonderstruck a graphic novel I don’t think it had a solid enough word-image connection, as emotionally compelling, or a strong enough sequential narrative to put it above Anya’s Ghost. I know people think Selznick has invented this great hybrid of storytelling but, really, those of us who have studied film know a storyboard when we see one.

And there you have it, my brief explanation of how the Cybils Graphic Novel Awards shook out from my personal perspective. I don’t know if any of my fellow judges have any plans to discuss their view of the process but if so I’ll happily update this post with links to their examinations. I will say, this was the most unanimous, least contentious judging panel I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.

Andrea, John, Sarah, Emily, (and fearless leader Liz) it was a pleasure and an honor working (briefly) with you all!

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I am, again, a Cybils judge in the graphic novel category this year. As I write this my fellow judges and I are just finishing up with our reading and will shortly begin the process of choosing a winning title from among the finalists. In my experience reviewing graphic novels I have come across a number of people – smart people who are very good at analyzing literature, mind you – who wonder how I can tell a good graphic novel from a bad one. What makes a good graphic novel different, they might ask, than a comic? The assumption that comics are automatically of a lower quality I get, because it’s similar to the artificial classification between literature and what some call junk fiction (i.e. genre fiction).

I’m not looking to pick at the worry-wound that is the divide between high and low art, but I have been thinking about the choices I am about to make as a “judge” and feel like exploring this a bit.

I used to teach Art and English to middle school kids a few lifetimes ago. One of things people always asked (and sometimes still do) is “How can you grade Art? It’s such a subjective thing.” The fallacy of this line of thinking is that people confuse the mechanics of creating something with the arbitrary notion of “art.” In publishing this sometimes shows up as a question of whether or not something has “literary merit” as opposed to just being a good story. But these labels and qualifications have nothing to do with the creation and execution of these works. I don’t have to like every great work of art or literature, but I can still respect the quality of the effort that was put into them.

So getting back to grading middle school art students (and how this fits in with judging graphic novels) what I used to tell my students was that every blank sheet of paper, or canvas, or pile of ingredients had the potential to be anything, to be great. Because of this, every project had the potential to be an A, and that’s where every project grade began. From there each project had a set of criteria it had to meet, concrete deadlines or specific instructions to be followed, and how well those were addressed would whittle away or support that A grade. And because my students were often resistant to projects before they began them, I found it easier to make my criterium deceptively simple.

  • Was the work completed on time?
  • Did you use class time well?
  • Did you follow the directions I provided?
  • Is this honestly your best effort?
  • Did you sign your final project?

Removing the stress of whether or not I would think their work was “good” from the grading equation allowed them to focus on the more important aspect of the project: paying attention to the details and putting forth a best effort to come to a creative solution to the problem. Remove good and bad and that internal voice of judgment gave them the confidence to be creative without worrying what anyone else thought. And when the projects were finished and we held in-class critiques the kids would call each other out on the criteria and not based on whether or not they liked the finished project. When you hear one student tell another “Oh, no, you did not put your best effort into this, because I saw you goofing off!” even the issue of grading becomes secondary.

This applies to any creative endeavor, writing certainly can be appreciated for its quality even when the subject or style bores or distracts, and with graphic novels it comes in handy when deciding between two different titles with different styles and subjects. Story quality counts, certainly, but with sequential storytelling the visual elements also have to be taken into account. Like a picture book the word and images need to work together, and by working together I don’t mean that the style of the art must reflect the nature of the story, though this can’t hurt. In the end it might seem like my criteria is arbitrary, but all judgments are personal so these criteria exist as a way of establishing a set of groundings beyond the old “gut feeling.”  These are some of the things I look for in a graphic novel

  • Is there a satisfying narrative arc from beginning to end?
  • Does the art contribute meaning to the story that is not otherwise expressed in the words?
  • Is there imagery or symbolism  incorporated, and if so, is it unique or relevant?
  • Could this story have only been told in this format?
  • Would this story be as interesting if it were told as a traditional fiction narrative?

With the idea that every unread book has the potential to be great, after reading a graphic novel I find that I can better understand what did or didn’t “work” for me by using the criteria above. It isn’t an absolute guide, but in cases where I am having a difficult time articulating whether I liked a graphic novel, or why I liked it, these can be helpful.

The quality of the art isn’t mentioned above but that’s because it’s a secondary or parallel issue for me. I don’t care how beautiful the artwork for a graphic novel is, if the story is boring or weak or reprehensibly clichéd, then the book is a failure for me. Gild a turd any way you want, it’s still a turd. Tell me a story I’ve read a thousand before, but give me a unique visual or some clever symbolism to hold onto, and you’ve got my attention. I’ve read mini comix that employed stick figures with more humor and insight than all the Hollywood comedies put out last year. The rudimentary art didn’t bring down the quality of the comic any more than a huge Hollywood budget is a guarantee of art.

If past is prologue, I predict that somewhere in the midst of Cybils judging I’m going to have to compromise. It never fails, my first choice picks almost never get chosen by the group as a winner. That’s okay because the process is a little more like the Supreme Court laying down a ruling rather than a jury delivering a unanimous decision. There will always be splits and divides, and that’s okay because in the end, no matter what committee confers whatever award, or what one critic or reviewer says about any particular books, one simple rule should take precedent over all others for readers:

Read everything and judge for yourself.

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A New Year’s Eve cold and a truckload of graphic novel reading has kept me quiet lately. Well, it’s kept me from blogging and talking with a normal voice around the house at least.

A good deal of the things I’ve been reading have been as a Cybils Graphic Novel finalist judge and I really cannot talk about those books because them’s the rules. I have been keeping a sort of “diary of a judge” post running as I go so that on the 15th of February I can let the world know what was going on during the process. Not me giving away secrets about the other judges or gossip like that (like I’m clued in enough for gossip) but the process of how I came to the decisions I made. Or am making at the time. It’s weird to talk about the future in the past tense when it’s happening in the moment.

But to be fair, I have been reading a lot of other things as well, I just haven’t had a chance to write or review them. Which means that down the road there’s going to be a flood of catching up I’m going to have to do. That said, there are still some general things I can say about all the reading I’ve been doing lately. Hopefully it won’t sound too vague.

One thing I’d like to see less of are graphic novels about characters with powers or who fight crime. If there’s one thing that makes the graphic novel novel is how it differentiates itself from comic books. It’s just too easy to use the inherent action of superhero comics to give a story a false sense of plot and character development. Far too often the main character’s growth is patently shallow, and if you removed the action sequences (which more often than not have little to do with any inner character growth at all) what you have left is a laughable pamphlet that reads like a 1950s sitcom plot synopsis. “When the Beaver attempts to tackle a problem on his own he quickly discovers there is strength in numbers.”

What are monsters? What do they stand for? Aside from scaring us, or our hero, there has to be a reason they are there. Either they represent a surrogate for a tangible fear or they express a larger concept or idea. If they are merely obstacles to drive a plot or provide a character something to defeat, if they aren’t organic to the story, what’s the point? And if they are symbolic of the main character’s struggle, is it perhaps too much to ask that they be incorporated into the story in a way that they aren’t so heavy-handed, leaden, or obvious?

Fight scenes. They make for good action scenes, especially in a visual medium like graphic novels, but can’t we do something more creative in conveying struggles? A battle of wits, a battle of logic, I’d even take a bake-off as a climax provided it was chemistry that ruled the day. Honestly, sometimes when I’m reading a graphic novel and a fight scene is ramping up I feel as if I’m watching a Chuck Norris movie… which is fine if I’m reading a Chuck Norris graphic novel. Sadly, I haven’t come across a Chuck Norris graphic novel yet.

Finally, I understand – honestly, I do – that a writer or artist can only tell the stories that drive them. But there’s a line between the universal story told personally and what is so personal that reads like therapy. I acknowledge that there can be some great literature and art from pain and grief, that deep emotions can be mined to stunning effect, but no one wants to feel as if they’re going through grief counseling and psychoanalysis as a bystander. Maybe that’s just me.

So aside from my weekly Poetry Friday posts and the occasional check-in I hope to be back to the Grimmoire and delve into some new territory here in the coming weeks.

For you regulars, I thank you for your patience, and or you occasionals, for your kind attentions.

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I always feel like nerdy Navin Johnson from The Jerk anytime I get picked for something, so just imagine Steve Martin jumping up and down and shouting the title of this post for the full effect.

This year I am again on the Graphic Novel panel, although I wavered quite a bit over whether to make it my first or second choice after poetry. I still feel very much like a sham when it comes to poetry, and probably always will. Even if I were to publish shelf-loads of chapbooks (or even one) I would feel this way. I don’t know why poetry makes me feel this way though I suspect that somewhere in my educational past I was told something that put me in my place.

No matter, I think I’m better suited for judging graphic novels this year. Better informed, I should say. I think there’s going to be quite a strong showing of titles and it may be difficult to choose one over the other.

One of the things that judging graphic novels reminds me of are the back-to-school nights when I was teaching Art in middle schools. The question foremost on parent’s minds (as well as with students) was how I could consistently grade something as individual, idiosyncratic, and subjective as creative output. To their minds, creativity was something mystical that seemed outside the realm of quantitative judgment, going hand-in-hand with the idea that a talent was given at birth and not learned. Similarly I find, many feel a graphic novel is a form of storytelling that doesn’t follow the same rules as traditional narratives and so there must be some different, mystical set of rules for determining quality.

While it’s true that there is a different vocabulary for the mechanics of graphic storytelling, in the end the story needs to satisfy the reader on the same level as traditional narratives. Characters have to be complex and well-developed, there has to be a sense of narrative arc that flows from a central conflict or theme, and there needs to be a satisfying resolution. There is an added visual element to the decision to be sure, but the most lavishly illustrated and colored graphic novel is nothing more than a collection of pretty pictures if there’s no story to back them up.

In the past I have seen some interesting finalists for the Cybils Graphic Novel category that, to me, were clearly chosen for their graphics and not their storytelling. I cannot say whether or not the panelists felt the lack of story was compensated by the strength of the art or if they simply couldn’t see the narrative flaws but it does make for some interesting discussions when it comes time to select a winner.

As I said, I think this is a strong year for the Graphic Novel category and I’m looking forward to having to make some tough decisions down the road.

At this point almost all the judges have been posted over at the Cybils blog, and there are some mighty impressive people involved all over the place.

What are the Cybils? Oh, no, you did not just ask me that!

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I just finished a trio of “graphic novels” and they’ve put a tempest in my teapot again about the term. Despite their Library of Congress subject demarcation as graphic novels the phrase that would best describe these three books are comic book, comic adventure, picture book with pretensions.

[For those worried that I’m talking about Cybils-nominated titles, fear not.  But out of some weird desire not to be too negative I will not be listing the titles and authors here. If I do feel compelled to comment I’ll do so in formal reviews at that other blog of mine.]

Yes, this is me once again railing about using “graphic novel” to describe books intended for children and young adults that, to my thinking, fail to earn that title. It has become a hip way to market certain titles with comic book elements that (presumably) elevates them from some lower level of contempt. I don’t know if publishers are consciously aware of this, are parading their ignorance, or simply trying to gild a turd for revenue, but it irks me something fierce when I see inferior quality books heralded by reviewers because they cannot be bothered to see that the emperor is naked.

Just to be clear, what I expect from a graphic novel aimed at children and young adults are the same things I expect from fiction, movies, and any other art that falls under the general category of storytelling. I don’t believe that simply stringing out a weak picture book plot over twice as many pages with five times the number of illustrations is a substitution for quality.  I don’t think that a mystery series that goes from point A to point B without an ounce of characterization makes it good just because it appeals to readers.  I don’t care how proficient the art is, if you wouldn’t publish the story as a fictive narrative then i see no reason to publish it without demanding the same sort of story revisions authors are asked to perform.

When I pick up a book that uses sequential storytelling as its genre here’s what I look for:

  • A main character with a clearly delineated goal or conflict
  • Secondary characters with their own, occasionally conflicting, objectives
  • A resolution that provides either the main character or the reader with a sense of having gained something from the experience
  • A reason why the story needed to be told in a graphic format

You might be surprised at how many “graphic novels” fail to provide many if not most of these points.

For many of the “graphic novels” intended for younger audiences there seems to be this notion that a punchline is good enough, which aligns them closer with a comic strip than a graphic novel.  Picture books can often get away with this punchline structure, and I would argue that many of the “graphic novels” that resemble comic strips could be boiled down to much better, funnier, picture books.  In some ways, the “graphic novel” becomes proof of flabby writing.

But often the question I’m left asking when I finish a “graphic novel” is: why did someone (or several someones, since publishers and editors are involved) feel this story needed to be told and published in this format?  The equivalent is sitting in the theatre after a movie wishing you could have not only your money but those lost two hours of your life back.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve felt this way with “graphic novels” from large publishing houses.

I think moving forward I’m going to attempt to identify “graphic novels” according to the criteria above in my reviews and see if it holds up. It may turn out that I’ll come across a book that fails on most counts but is still satisfying.  I can’t think of one off the top of my head – perhaps you can – but maybe by this time next year I’ll have identified a trend or adopt some other set of criteria that works better.

As it stands, here’s hoping for better graphic novels and fewer “graphic novels” in children’s literature in 2011.

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