I've never been afraid to call myself a geek. I can quote a few lines of Shakespeare, I know what "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" means, I'll talk for hours about why Star Wars is my favorite movie of all time, I can recite Willow in its entirety and I saw both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight twice the day they opened. But comics? They were always that next level of geek I wouldn't cross. One step beyond random trivia and one before Dungeons and Dragons. Then, mostly because ign.com covers comics along with movies and video games, I became curious. I kept reading articles about the graphic novels that were more than just superhero stories, blurring the lines between comic and literature. I had to find out for myself.
I've always been attracted to the images. The human body is an incredible work of art, and nearly everyone in a comic is a perfectly sculpted human form placed in impossible poses that accentuate and highlight that artistic beauty. The ability of the artists to bring these characters to life in this way blows the artistic side of my mind.
But are they more than pretty pictures? Yes and no...mostly no. I still hold out on going anywhere near picking up the latest monthly issue of (insert name)-man as they don't even attempt anything more than an quick story and a few splash pages. But the graphic novels, those written as a single story over a collection of issues, are crafted with much more purpose. They are where the critical and literary acclaim comes into play. I will admit that they have the makings of great story telling, but simply lack the depth of a true novel.
Take the Batman. When viewed through a lens that encompasses the entire collection of bat-mythology, there are some fantastic literary elements: vengeance born from tragedy, skewed justification of morally grey acts, an invented persona eclipsing a real one...These are the things of modern storytelling. But individual works fall short of exploring these themes with any amount of depth. They touch on them, but the reader must assume quite a bit about the writer's intentions if they wish to fill in the gaps with any amount of analysis. It's as if the true comic fans want so desperately for their domain to be accepted as literary art that they try to wring every drop of meaning out of the fifteen words in each panel. I've seen people tout "The Dark Knight Returns" as a quintessential example of postmodern literature. It's got great art and a sweet story but is so concerned with plot that it is only able to skim the surface of its themes.
Plot, then, becomes the downfall of any attempt at literary excellence for many graphic novels. Born from simpler ideas of telling stories of super men and noble crime fighters, graphic novels struggle to break from their roots. With only so much room on a page, priorities must be set. Sadly, story wins all too often, leaving character exploration behind.
Recent works have really pushed the visual boundaries, utilizing fine artists to create each panel as individual paintings. Perhaps the storytelling boundaries aren't far behind.
All that said, good graphic novels are still a quick, interesting read. Here's some, that I've enjoyed:
The only comic on TIME's list of the best works of English literature since 1923 - some really cool elements that break the normal comic book formula (e.g. entire chapters of fake books) - just try to forget about the giant squid (you'll know when you get to it)
The Dark Knight Returns
Probably the best example of all of the qualities that make Batman so unique (i.e. darkness, master planner, unwillingness to kill, etc.)
Superman: Red Son
I'm not a Superman fan, but Red Son, set in a world where Superman crash lands in Soviet Russia rather than the US, is an interesting take on the character reminiscent of Animal Farm.