recess radio program

10/18/04
Graphic Novels
    by John Cech

 

It's the beginning of Teen Read Week, which isn't such a contradiction in terms as it may seem. Teens actually do a lot of reading outside of school, but it's usually not what we adults would recognize as being especially important and/or edifying. Usually, teens aren't pouring over the classics of literature or award-winning recent books unless they're in AP or International Baccalaureate programs that require these assignments.

So what are teens reading? Magazines, for one thing: about the things they love to do, the cars they'd buy, the fashions they'd wear, the people they'd like to date. Endless stuff on the Internet. Directions for video games, computers, and the steady stream of new electronic devices. Information about their favorite stars, performers, sports, movies, recordings. And something called the graphic novel -- a step up from comic books and daily comic strips, and a step into the concerns of the adult world -- whether it's Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-prize-winning Maus, about Speigelman's own quest to understand the experience of his parents who both survived the Holocaust, or Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis saga that explores a girl's coming of age during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, or Neil Gaiman's haunting, surreal Sandman series, with pictures by a long list of well-known comic book illustrators, or Lynda Barry's funny and moving comic strip about the lives of adolescent outsiders, Earnie Pook's Comeek, which has been collected into a number of volumes. All of these unique works have the same relationship to approved, mainstream young adult books as independent movies do to Hollywood formula films. And speaking of Indie films, one of the more popular graphic novels, Ghost World, about two slacker girlfriends who are making the transition from teendom to adulthood, has, in fact, become a movie.

Why has this form taken off -- so much so that the New York Times Sunday Magazine would devote a cover story to it this past summer? Perhaps it's because, as Art Speigelman said in a recent interviw, the graphic novel gets much closer the way we really think, in a mixture of words and images -- and for the increasingly more visual culture of contemporary young people, that's a vital element of its success. Graphic novels are also edgey and unconventional. Even though they've moved from the dusty bins of comic book shops onto the polished shelves of mainstream bookstores, graphic novels still keep an aura of the underground rebel about them, and this suits teens just fine.

Copyright 2004 John Cech

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