It seems pointless to argue that graphic novels have an important place in literature at this point. Personally, I took two classes during my undergraduate career that incorporated such texts (including Satrapi’s Persepolis and Bechdel’s Fun Home), but more often than not this is a rare occurrence and something I did not encounter in my graduate coursework. Graphic novels often do not get the attention they deserve, in part because many deem them déclassé due to their graphic nature and/or subject material, but also because they are hard to teach. While graphic novels can be analyzed through literary theory (and should be), the format itself, and most notably, the visual element of such narratives, are in a scholarly discipline all their own. One cannot teach, or even fully enjoy a graphic novel, without at least a bare minimum knowledge of art theory and visual composition. (Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods are good places to start.) But then again, neither of these things occupies some alien universe detached from what we as literary scholars already tackle.
The methodology in exploring and teaching these types of texts is an important topic better suited for another blog post, and in all honesty, another scholar with more experience and expertise in accomplishing those tasks. What I can offer are a few suggestions of some of my favorite newly discovered, free-access webcomics, all of which offer intriguing subject material by well-researched creators. The authors/artists behind the texts below give particular attention to making sure their stories occur in realistic universes. Dylan Meconis’ works Bite Me! and Family Man situate themselves in the eighteenth century, in meticulously researched, historically accurate settings. The post-apocalyptic Earth in Minna Sundberg’s Stand Still, Stay Silent is not a reality (yet!), but she organically incorporates her knowledge of Nordic history and folklore with true art. Briefly summarizing each of these graphic novels and extolling their virtues as I see them, my hope is that you will be inspired read some of these works, and more importantly, recognize the benefits they offer in introducing more “serious” material in an engaging, untraditional way. (For more explicitly historical graphic novels, check out The Loxleys and the War of 1812 by Alan Grant and Lewis and Clark by Nick Bertozzi.)
Easily the most ridiculous in subject material and with the most comical graphic style, Meconis’ tale of Claire, a barmaid working just outside Paris during the French Revolution contains satirical elements as well as surprisingly insightful interludes into the time period. Claire accidentally becomes one of the undead after a vampire takes an interest in her, and an accident after a feeding leads to her joining the ranks of an elite, psychotic coven of vampires. While I found the characters to be rather one-dimensional and absurd, there are some absolute comedic and intellectual gems hidden in this story.
First off, the cover, as you can see, takes direct inspiration from Eugène Delacroix’s famous 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People (1830). Although Delacroix was commemorating the July Revolution or “Trois Glorieuses” in France and not the earlier French Revolution of the late eighteenth century, Meconis’ decision to use incorporate its main elements into the introduction of her webcomic undoubtedly is meant to make readers who recognize the painting smile while hinting at the narrative as well.
Once I saw the cover, I knew I was hooked and I breezed through the six short chapters in the story. While there I frequently found myself laughing out loud at Meconis’ wit, there are two examples that stood out of me. The first is when Claire meets Robespierre after inciting a riot (using a head scarf, three tomatoes, a shoehorn, string and a spoon). She reacts as if she was meeting a rock star, and he graciously signs her thigh using “the blood of the ruling class.” Here Meconis cleverly comments on what would have been considered pop culture during the time of the French Revolution, while poking fun at the culture and methods of the revolution.
As an undead scholar, however, I found myself blown away by the explanation of vampires. Claire manages to convince a bunch of mortals that the lore surrounding these undead creatures is merely a clever disguise meant to upset the upper classes and establish a truly revolutionary body.
Also created by Meconis, this graphic novel appears much more somber in narrative and creative design. The plot (inspired by Emile, or On Education) follows Luther Levy (introduced in Bite Me!) as he navigates life as a theology scholar in late 1760s Germany. The supernatural elements of this work develop more covertly and with more serious consequences, and the research behind the story is much more in-depth. Meconis actually includes a “Notes” section on the website, detailing the historical significance of the clothing, architecture, religion and books incorporated into the plot and graphics. Every element of each panel that has some legitimate explanation and relevance to the time period is explained. She even includes a small sample of the bibliography she uses to create this graphic novel. Entertaining, and educational.
The least “realistic” due to its futuristic setting, this graphic novel is my personal favorite both in plot and artistic style. Sundberg’s narrative begins with a prologue 90 years before the main events as a global viral epidemic destroys the known world. The rest of the story reads more like a travelogue, as a ragtag group of scientists, mages, “cleansers” and scholars try to fund and complete an expedition into the now unknown, monster-filled world outside the walled-in “safe” zones. Weaving Nordic mythology and folklore into a very modern plot, Sundberg explores catastrophe paranoia amidst themes such as racism, ageism and classism. She also includes fictional propaganda and educational materials, some of which are applicable to the real world, including this beautiful linguistic family tree.
(All images are from the artists’ own webcomic sites.)