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Graphic novels, dumbing down, and so on - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Graphic novels, dumbing down, and so on
So I was reading an an article about graphic novels as proof of our "dumbing down," and I ran smack into my dual nature.

One side of me is saying, "Hey, bub--great stories aren't about format. Advanced reading is not a skill based on the ability to decode letters without pictorial assistance, it's about the ability to analyze the story and peel back its layers and see all of its realistic possibilities (and impossibilities). It doesn't matter if that story is presented in brilliant, tight-packed prose or in a swashbuckling action movie... the point is to really be able to get a handle on it." This part of me rails against lit snobs who equate "best seller" (or even fantasy/sf/any genre stuff) with bad and "obscure and pointless" with "It must be great art!"

The other part of me, though, is just not crazy about graphic novels, despairs of the culture of kids who will read absolutely nothing else, weeps at the loss of language and imagination skills among people who have literally said that they can't make their minds picture stuff that's "just written," and generally laments the loss of writing as a serious skill. That part is more like, "What's next? Sweet Valley as a deep exploration of adolescence? I mean, who needs Lord of the Flies or A Separate Peace when you've got the riveting narrative of the Sweet Valley Twins?"

Blah. I feel like I should pick a side here.
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ashtur From: ashtur Date: December 29th, 2006 03:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I know there are some rather... poor graphic novels out there, but any genre that can be host to Watchmen can't be considered dumbed down.
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ashavah From: ashavah Date: December 29th, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, I actually have a lot of trouble picturing things from words.

I don't know why, but I'm just not a visual person. So maybe it's not just lack of interest in reading that does that, because goodness knows I'ma n avid enough reader!
nomadicwriter From: nomadicwriter Date: December 29th, 2006 10:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Seconded. I've been an avid reader and fiction writer since I was very young, but I cannot picture things inside my head and never have been able to. I think it really is a question of how your brain functions rather than anything else.

Having said that, I find that a consequence of being so non-visual is that I actually find comics and graphic novels much harder to read than text-only books - precisely because they're not "picture books" or reluctant reader aids. The illustrations are an intrinsic part of the narrative rather than a duplicate of or supplement to the text, so if like me you don't process visual information all that well it's more of an effort to follow the story.

So, yeah, what I think is lacking is not so much the ability to visualise as the ability to mentally construct a scene. I may not be able to picture character X, but I'm still fully capable of retaining the information that he's standing in the corner, wearing a cloak, holding a dagger and he smells of wine and hasn't shaved in a while. I think that's what these people who "can't make their minds picture stuff" can't do - for whatever reason, they can't pluck the relevant details out of the text, fit them together and store them in memory. So I'm thinking the issue is in memory/attention span or reading comprehension. In a film or a graphic novel, all that contextual information is there for you to see at a glance, but in reading text you have to properly process and retain it. (As a side note, I wonder if this issue is also what's behind a lot of young fanfic writers writing in so-called "script format" where it's basically just dialogue with action tags.)

I don't know how you'd combat that kind of reading deficiency, though, except maybe some sort of exercises like "make a list of all the things described in this scene and then draw a picture from it" or "act out the character's actions as you come to them". It's one of those things that when you've been a reader all your life you find it hard to comprehend not being able to do.

honorh From: honorh Date: December 29th, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, it all does depend on quality, doesn't it? Like you said, you've got Shakespeare, and you've got Sweet Valley Twins. You've also got Sandman and Spider-man. I'm not ashamed to say I read the occasional graphic novel, and I'm a former English teacher. Sandman is good literature, hands down.

At the same time, there is a point to worrying about kids who can't picture things in their heads without the aid of illustrations. Sometimes, I think that's an effect of the TV age, of having everything beamed at them in living color. It's not, let's face it, just comic books or graphic novels that are at fault.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 29th, 2006 04:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
At the same time, there is a point to worrying about kids who can't picture things in their heads without the aid of illustrations

I think that's mostly where my horror comes from. I know a group of very bright girls, one of whom, at least, has a lot of skill as an artist... and they can't bring images into their heads without someone else having done it for them first.
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sophonax From: sophonax Date: December 29th, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I definitely share your ambiguity--on the one hand, I want graphic novels to be recognized as a valid art form and not to be dismissed as brainless fluff; but on the other, I'm not really a fan, and it can be frustrating to see them garner so much praise when stuff I think is really good gets ignored because it's not in as "exciting" and "revolutionary" a medium.

The article you linked seemed to be drinking the McLuhan Kool-Aid a little too heavily with its rather crude equation of medium and message--in the author's world, if any information is transmitted in a medium that *he* doesn't like, it can't possibly be useful for learning! I just kept murmuring, "Um, content does matter, you know." And to be sure, there are graphic novels with excellent and thought-provoking content.

However, I can't fault the author too much for making this equation, because it seems like graphic-novel fans and purveyors of dumbed-down educational materials do exactly the same thing. The text-doesn't-matter textbook-writers say, "Look! Our formats are FAR more useful for learning than anything you might possibly want to read," and the graphic-novel fans say "You can get so much more emotion and nuance and drama in a graphic novel than you can with a regular book!" The former simply have their heads up their asses about educational theory, and the latter, I'd submit, haven't read nearly enough good text-only books if they think that those lack emotion and nuance and drama.

That's what bugs me about graphic novels being considered for literary prizes--it's a totally different medium, and they don't belong there any more than movies do. When graphic novels win book awards, I fear that the tide will turn from describing them as "somewhat like books, but different" to "just like books, but BETTER!! And when they get the recognition they deserve, we won't need text-only books anymore!"

And then I won't have my text-only books anymore, or at any rate no one serious will really care about them, and I'll be sad. I dunno, maybe it's just my defensive conservative nature.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 29th, 2006 10:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
What about kids who don't like a wall of text? I learned a lot of math from the examples, not the wordy explanations.
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: December 29th, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I mostly read comics as a kid and preferred the format over books (still do actually) and they are not easier to read than books, just different. A friend of mine in high school wasn't allowed comics by her parents (both German teachers worried about the destruction of culture or whatever) and when I gave her comics I'd drawn to look at she couldn't even understand the story because she didn't even know how to read graphic narratives that used complex techniques. It's just different skills. She was missing out on whole chunks of culture and narrative, while I who mostly read comics had no problem understanding text-only narratives at all.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 29th, 2006 04:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
they are not easier to read than books, just different

Heh, totally agreed. I've been an avid reader all my life, but I can't concentrate on the comic book format! I've so far not been impressed at the ones I've managed to get through (I've seen Holocaust stories done better than Maus, for instance), and have been baffled by the whole manga series thing, but definitely, it's a different skill set. It doesn't even seem to use the same part of my brain.
the_gentleman From: the_gentleman Date: December 29th, 2006 04:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I suspect that the ones who only read graphic novels to the exclusion of all else would probably not read War and Peace or even Lord of the Flies. I really do not agree with the idea that liking pulp culture stunts the brain's growth. Sure, it might be easier to ignore the challenge of "grown-up" literature- but what I like about graphic novels such as Watchmen, Sandman or Fables (to name a few of the more well-known ones) is that they take the trappings of pulp culture and use it subvert the genre, introducing these themes of myth, or language, or heroism.

Besides, I'm not altogether sure that you need imagination to read books. Sure, it helps- but most books, if you'd asked me what hair-colour/race/accent a character had I'd respond with a blank stare and point at the Plot. The text's there in books as much as the pictures are there in graphic novels, and suggesting that adding pictures ruins the imagination doesn't really strike true for me. (Besides, what's to stop me saying that having words is cheating, and you should just look at the pictures and use your imagination to make a story from them?)

What graphic novels generally do well is symbolism- which is why the superhero genre does so well- and symbolism works best when you have visual and verbal languages mixing together. William Blake, for example, is technically a graphic novelist...
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 29th, 2006 04:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I suspect that the ones who only read graphic novels to the exclusion of all else would probably not read War and Peace or even Lord of the Flies.

Heck, most of the ones I'm used to also wouldn't read Watchmen, Sandman, or Fables. It's all about Ranma or Peach Girl or Fruits Basket or whatever. They think superhero comics are dumb and boring (I can't move even Spiderman when the movies are out!) Which is probably why my perspective is skewed, though it's also because of all the damned proselytizing I got in library school from graphic novel enthusiasts who all but came out with "It's so much better than mere text!"

My point on the refusing to imagine is more a particular issue I have with a girl who, of all people I know, needs to be able to visualize, because she's talented enough to have a career drawing the things, but she won't be able to do it if she can't visualize from someone's text.
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karintheswede From: karintheswede Date: December 29th, 2006 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are brilliant comics and there's serialised crap. There are books such as Sandman or Watchmen or Frank Millers things, and then there's, I dunno, the Donald Duck magazine.

A graphic novel won the finest price there is for children's lit where I live last year. I didn' like the book, but I did like that the jury was progressive enough that they realised that there was something to the medium than "eek! comics = lowbrow & bad".

Then there's the discussion of wether graphic novels as an artform ought to compete with non-graphic storytelling. I doubt that grapic novels will ever "beat" novels as a whole, I think the risk there is more that we will eventually see some kind of practical solution to a portable e-book that's actually viable.

As for a graphic novel having been nominated for the national book award, it's a children's book, right? Well, what's the discussion really about, then? Children's books have been illustrated more or less from the beginning - Struwwelpeter was illustrated!
matril From: matril Date: December 29th, 2006 05:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've had a similar conflict in my own head - I myself appreciate graphic novels, and have greatly enjoyed some good ones, but I don't like it when they're touted as superior to regular books. I wish people would just accept that it's a separate medium, with its own share of lousy and excellent work. There's no reason to discredit it entirely, but it's also a shame to read exclusively in that medium and miss out on so many great books.
ani_bester From: ani_bester Date: December 29th, 2006 05:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Aww don't pick a side. You really don't need too.

Well maybe you could be on the side that graphic novels are a good sotry telling medium, but need their own awards *shrugs*

But as far as strong stories, I'd hold Books of Magic up against a lot of books these days.

The thing of it is, a lot of people look at "comics" and assume the visual is a crutch for the narrativly challenged. And well, sometimes it is, especially in older comics.

But a good comic (anything by Eisner!) integrates the art and story in a way that makes each one dependent on the other and really, words are simply a more abstracted form of symbolism than art even is, and it can take as much thought and invovlement to "read" the visual symbols in a well crafted comic as it can to read the visual symbols in a well crafted book.

And of course, both can be utter garbage *shrugs*

I mean personally, Eragon makes the current X-Men comics look like literary masterworks =P

I also, btw hate the idea that obscure=brillance.
Really sometimes the great do get noticed.

On a totally random note, at my Dad's school, one of the ESL teachers is using graphic novels rather than books to teach with because she's found using graphic novels as a stepping stone is better than using introductory level reading books, since they're less dense than books but not insulting to the kids intelligence the way the books on their reading level are.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 29th, 2006 06:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have been utterly unable to get through Eragon. I try. I wince. I put it away and pick up something else. Though nothing, so far, has been worse than the single novel I tried in the Love Stories series, which involved the girl marveling at the "absolute perfectness" of her boyfriend's kiss.

I guess I'd probably be in the same place with a romance being nominated. It's not my cuppa, but I can accept that some are good, quality stuff... but my daily experience with "absolute perfectness" and the readers who think anything else even in the genre that contains a moderate stretch makes me feel nails on a blackboard, and thus puts me in rant mode.

Pictures are a great step in ESL teaching. Fewer words for smaller vocabularies, all set in context.
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darkthirty From: darkthirty Date: December 29th, 2006 05:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
You've left something out here, though. The quality of the art in any given book. It's not a secondary concern.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 29th, 2006 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's true. I think my actual position is, "I don't especially like the format, but you can't judge the worth of the story by the format, so don't... but, ugh, the way they push the things, I'm sick of it!'" (You have to understand that in in library school, I guess so many librarians didn't want to stock graphic novels that they've gone into full-scale evangelical mode, about how much better they are than those piddling ordinary books, and how they will single-handedly save literacy by engaging poor and reluctant readers... Why, they're going to do everything but save the soul of the nation!)
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 29th, 2006 08:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Unless it's by one of the manga authors, they won't be interested. I can't move Marvel or DC in here.
lady_moriel From: lady_moriel Date: December 29th, 2006 08:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I'm not on one side or the other either. I would wholeheartedly agree with your first point--I haven't read much in the way of graphic novels aside from some manga my friends have loaned me, most of which actually turned out to have well-defined characters, good writing, and good plots, along with shiny art. For the most part, I think it's just a different art form--some stories told in manga form would be a little tricky to tell any other way, and some would be hard to tell in manga form.

But on the other hand, I read a lot of other stuff too (not quite so much lately, because of College Eating My Brain, but I've been doing better over the break), so I also agree with your second point. So really...I think there's plenty of room for an opinion right in between--graphic novels are great if you can enjoy them as something different and not rely on them as a crutch because you lack the imagination to get through something that doesn't have pictures.
hymnia From: hymnia Date: December 29th, 2006 08:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't really understand all the bashing of manga by various commenters. Um...manga is an enormous genre. It has its crap and its masterpieces, like any other genre.

Re: Graphic novels as stepping stones to text novels.

I don't perceive graphic novels as "dumbed down" or "easy reader" novels, but I do think, as I said in my comment above, that they could work as a stepping stone for some people. That's because I believe learning to like a good story in any form could be a way to engage someone in the pursuit of more good stories. For instance, if someone falls in love with a movie that's based on a book, they might feel compelled to read the book just becuase they liked the movie so much, even though they normally are not interested in novels. But maybe from there they go on to read other books by the same author or in the same genre or whatever.

Or here's a concrete example: I had an eighth grade student I was tutoring for a long time who, like many eighth graders, loved to play video games. He was so obsessed with Halo that he actually started reading the companion novels to the game, and he enjoyed reading them enough that I got him to give the Harry Potter books a try as well. True, he might still have a ways to go before he tackles War and Peace, but it's a start, and it's a start he got because he liked the story of a video game, of all things. I think enjoying graphic novels or even those silly inane manga series that some people are so crazy about (:P) might open a person up in a similar way.

As for me, text novels were probably among the first stories that I really fell in love with, and I'm an avid addict of a good story ever since. Right now, it's manga that I'm enjoying the most. (And yes, I do consider Fruits Basket to be one of its masterpieces. Sue me.) Maybe for me text novels were a stepping stone to manga. ;) Don't worry, I still enjoy text novels as much as ever, and I'm sure I always will.

As for your dilemma, I agree with those who have said that both forms have their merits, that there are enormous differences between them, and that they probably should not be directly compared. I hope that you won't allow your impressions of overly-zealous advocates of graphic novels (or of Ranma/Peach Girl/Fruits Basket fangirls) to cloud your good judgement that "great stories aren't about format".
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: December 29th, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it's because there are so many teens who won't read anything that isn't manga. Like my brother. He used to read so much until he got into manga - now you can't get him to read anything else, and his places on the Netflix queue are full of anime (bad anime, at that). It can be frustrating, and if I weren't into it myself I'd probably bash it too.
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: December 29th, 2006 11:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm lamenting the decline of the written word while marvelling at the new medium of storytelling... I guess you can do both?
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 30th, 2006 12:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm a librarian and what I hate the most when people tell me they hate to read is the way some of them sound so proud of it.

Usually, I can get some idea of what to suggest from other interests, but sometimes I get the kids who won't even admit to those. The problem is that some of them stare blankly while I try to find out if there's anything - anything at all in the whole wide world - that they like to do with their spare time. I actually had one the other day who continued to stare blankly when I finally asked if there was ANYTHING she did besides stare blankly at the wall when she got home (I was going for humor but I think I'd fallen into sarcasm). Still no reaction.

One of these days, I really may give them a book on wall painting ("After you finish painting, you can have the fun of watching it dry. That's got to be loads better than staring at an ordinary wall, right? But don't paint too much at once. You might not be able to handle the excitement."

With graphic novels, I don't know. I've always been in the category of "ready anything that isn't nailed down." This included lots of comics and has lately moved on to manga. Some of them are lame. Some of them became lame. The ongoing ones have a big problem with constantly changing characters or trying to bring them out a new twist that I just can't care (how many times can one character be in love in a love that transcends time, anyway?).

But I want to see kids just making the connection that, gee, books can be fun.
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