From Hell. Constantine. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Sin City. V for Vendetta. To most people, this is a list of mediocre films. To a few people, these are also the titles of graphic novels.
These five films are only a fraction from the slew of productions based on graphic novels rolled out by the Hollywood movie-machine in the past few years. Most critics agree on the poor quality of these films: they admit that while they show potential, they also suffer from weak execution. “Dumbed down” is the most popular phrase used to describe the relation of graphic novel to film.
“Dumbed down from what?” would be the natural and justified question at this point. Common perception of the graphic novel as nothing more than a longer version of a child’s comic book already leaves most copies shunned by more literary types, amongst whom the Princeton undergraduate can be counted.
The main reason for this neglect is that the term “graphic novel” suffers from a lack of definition. Oftentimes comic book publishers simply compile comic strips and publish them – sometimes in hardcover form – as a “graphic novel,” affirming the popular belief that a graphic novel is a mere compilation. When the line between graphic novel and comic book is blurred, it is easy to dismiss any illustrated storyline as simplistic and non-literary.
Admittedly, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is no Pride and Prejudice, but then again I personally question what the big hubbub about Jane Austen is anyway. The subtlety of love and sexual encounter, characteristic of a Victorian novel, is not quite so subtle in this graphic novel, which is also set during the Victorian era of England. The “graphic” in graphic novel is quite apt. Authors adhere to a tradition of shock and awe, instead of the delicate treatment of taboo subjects. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for example features everything from brutal murder to cannibalism, from legitimate love-making to rape.
Advocates of the graphic novel define it as a work of literature meant for a mature and knowledgeable audience. So-called “anti heroes” populate the drably colored (and often black-and-white) illustrations of these books. These individuals avenge evil and protect the innocent not out of any moral obligation, but instead for the sake of brutality or personal gain. Rape and murder are not taboo, and they are part of the grim picture these authors paint of humanity. The plotlines are longer and more complex, issuing a message certainly too sinister and ambiguous for any child to enjoy.
Though these aspects may unnerve and even depress the reader, they are the blood, sweat and tears of the graphic novel. The authors of these books apologize for nothing. They may be attempting to breed a hybrid creature between the traditional comic and novel, but at the same time they seek the approval of neither big business nor the literary community.
Alan Moore stands as an example of this uncompromising image of artistic integrity. After reading the screenplay for V for Vendetta and finding it heavily altered from its original version, he demanded his name be entirely disassociated from the film. He was so outraged as to make public statements defaming the film script as “garbage.” The royalties that were due to him he left to his illustrator.
It is this commitment to art and free expression that I respect in graphic novels. Even though the read is far quicker (estimate 45min for 200 pages) than a common novel, the ideas are innovative compared to the themes of love and religion used and re-used in literature. As an English major all of the genius and brilliance of authors from Milton to Hemingway can occasionally become oppressive and heavy-handed. When literature becomes work, finding “pleasure reading” becomes difficult. That’s where the “pulp fiction” of graphic novels steps up and finds its niche.
Recently the publishing industry has made a push for wider acceptance of the graphic novel, but success promises to be slow or non-existent because the effort is not a unified one. On the one hand are individuals who consider the graphic novel an “artistic movement” and choose to call themselves “Graphic Novelists.” On the other hand, some comic writers such as Alan Moore decline use of the phrase entirely, feeling that it is simply a term coined by the big publishing companies to mean “expensive comic-book.”
The industry may be pushing the graphic novel, but so far I can’t perceive any effect in the intellectual culture of Princeton University. There are classes offered that reference in passing or analyze in depth numerous films, and these are not just the films that can be considered “high art.” Among these films that show literary potential are The Matrix by the Wachowski Brothers (the same directors that brought us V for Vendetta) and Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino (co-director of Sin City). Even though the University has taken steps to include these films in their curriculum, there is no indication of that the graphic novel will be attributed academic value. Still I find it hard to believe that any Professor could find fault with the wit and humor of V in V for Vendetta anymore than with Yossarian in Catch-22, or criticize the thug Marv (from Sin City) for his low-class speech and mannerisms without passing the same judgment on numerous Dickensian characters.
But it isn’t the University alone and the older generations of literati who ignore the graphic novel as a source of intellectual stimulation, but also the younger, current Princetonians. Knowing that successful adaptations to film do have the power to captivate Princeton audiences, why is it that the graphic novel still evokes disdainful laughter and snickers whenever I mention it to my fellow undergraduates? The exculpating answer is that our environment is to blame. The problem is that the University as an institution of higher learning takes a – shall we say – conformist approach to the arts. The snickering at the term graphic novel is not nature but nurture for most students at Princeton.
We can’t wait for the University to change for the sake of the graphic novel. The violence and noir ethos typical of graphic novels may be off-putting, but for some students it may just be what’s needed to get away from the grind of academics.