Dispatches | July 04, 2007

Here’s a trip down nostalgia lane: a little while ago I went to a comic book shop for the first time in a decade, and everything was just as I remembered. I’d been a comic-reading machine as a pre-teen. Years before being saturated with the likes of Steinbeck, Hemingway and Joyce in high school, devouring issues of X-Men and Excalibur was all the high culture I’d needed. Other kids had imaginary friends; I had imaginary vigilantes.

Flipping through the pages as a different reader now–someone forced to study “The Things They Carried” four times (four!) in different classes–it was easy to see why some serious writers could look down on the graphic novel medium. Its forebear, the comic book, is sometimes difficult to recognize as anything more than gratuitous fanboy escapism because there are only so many mountainous shoulders and plunging décolletages that one can see before deducing that this ain’t exactly James Joyce’s Dublin.

But I think there is a deeper reason for the knee-jerk dismissive attitude toward the graphic novel. It’s this sense that writing is an art because it is simply one of the most difficult ways for a person to get their point across. What we readily understand that someone is saying by a certain tone of voice or facial expression never perfectly corresponds to the written word–which is why sometimes that amazing story in our heads comes out in Microsoft Word looking like it’s just been through a couple of rounds of Japanese-to-English on Google Translate. Writing fiction requires a sensitive craftsman who can navigate that tricky passage, and the graphic novel, which brings the specificity of image to a story, could be seen as cheating–not “literature” as we know it. Add to that the suspect comic-book “spandex element,” and you can easily see why the graphic novel might not get its due.

Enter the Watchmen.

Twenty years ago writer Alan Moore and inkman Dave Gibbons collaborated to create Watchmen, an alternate- history narrative of vigilantism in the United States during the Cold War. Originally issued in monthly serials, the series was soon bound together into the graphic-novel form familiar to us today; it’s also been the recipient of a little critical acclaim—a little, as in, the only graphic novel to ever win a Hugo Award and the only graphic novel to appear in Time Magazine’s 2005 list of the hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. (That’s right; “novel.”)

Not exactly Peter Parker or Clark Kent, these moonlighting vigilantes deal with aging, weight gain, identity, sexual dysfunction, criminal ethics, questionable political views, love, and death, all bound up into a fugal narrative that achieves a plausible level of gritty psychological complexity. Not too shabby for a story about a bunch of guys and girls in tights.

So do yourself a favor, and stretch your definition of what’s “literary.” Go to your local comic book shop and rediscover a classic piece of American mythology; or, if you’re lucky, your local library may carry a copy you can check out for free. If nothing else, you can give it to your grumpy teen who “hates reading.” Watchmen rightfully spurred the genesis of the graphic novel movement, clearing the way for other brilliant (if more thematically conventional) works such as Alison Bechdel’s nonfiction Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a poignant work currently making waves for combining the memoir and the graphic novel to create something undeniably human.

Don’t miss out.