During Dewey’s 24 hour Read-a-Thon I read Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline as a graphic novel (adapted by P. Craig Russell). Technically it might not have been the first graphic novel I’ve read, but it certainly was the first one I bought myself, knowing it to be one!

About 15 years ago, shortly after I had met Mr Gnoe, I read the Pulitzer Prize winning work by Art Spiegelman: Maus, a Survivor’s Tale — an autobiographical story about Jews (depicted as mouses) surviving the World War II Holocaust. At that time I also got acquainted with the (just as grim) comic books of Tardi. Both I did not consider to be graphic novels at the time, because the term seems to be in in vogue only since the last few years.

So what is a graphic novel exactly? Well, there’s no real consensus about that :) Some consider it to be a posh term for all kinds of comic books provided they’re bound in a durable format like printed books, others believe there’s a distinction in artistic quality (which of course is a subjective matter).

Neil Gaiman himself — yes, I will get back to Coraline in a short while — considers it to be nothing more than a marketing term, a sales category.

[..] there’s no meaningful difference. For some reason the term “big thick collected or original comic published in book form” has never really caught on, while “Graphic Novel” did.

Cover Best of MuttsMyself, I am still in doubt whether or not to distinguish graphic novels from ‘ordinary’ comics. It just doesn’t feel right to call the collected Best of Mutts (Patrick McDonnell), that I bought along with Coraline, a graphic novel as well — even though it is a beautiful hardcover ‘coffee table book‘. I think I would like to hold on to the idea that a graphic novel is a story or collection of short stories in comic format (a balanced combination of narrative art and dialog or explanatory text), that holds something more than plain, popular entertainment. Like: could it be a novel without the image art? Does the story have some sustenance? I know I’m walking on thin ice here ;)

Do you have an opinion about graphic novels?

Cover Coraline

Back to Coraline now. It’s the fantasy/horror story of a girl moving with her family to a huge house that’s divided into four apartments. Exploring the house, Coraline finds a door into an ‘other world’, where her ‘other mother and father’ live. These parents tempt her with things that are all better than at her real home, because they want her to stay.

Doesn’t that immediately make you think of Alice in Wonderland? It does even more when you read about the neighbours persisting in mispronouncing Coraline’s name as Caroline in the first pages (think Lewis Caroll). It’s been too long since I read about Alice’s adventures (I must have been a child of about 9), but it would be fun to compare the stories.

Another book Coraline reminded me of is the classic Japanese novel I was reading for the read-a-thon as well: I Am a Cat, by Natsume Sōseki (from 1905). It begins as follows:

“I am a cat. As yet I have no name.” (p.5)

And here’s when Coraline meets a cat at the new property (p.41):

Whats your name

And it explains to us on the same page:

“Now, you people have names because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Or, when Coraline first sees the cat on ‘the other side’ (p.39):

I'm no other anything

Cats naturally being wise, it has a theory about it on the next page (p.40):

“You people are spread all over the place. Cats on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”

Back to I Am a Cat:

“Cats are truly simple. If we want to eat, we eat; if we want to sleep, we sleep;” (p.26)

Reading synchronisity!

I guess the fact that Coraline reminded me of these classics helps in making it more of a reading experience than simple entertainment. Although it was also just plain fun to read Coraline ;)

Like Maus, the graphic adaptation of Coraline by Russell has won an important prize: the 2009 Eisner Award (an ‘Oscar’ for comics) in the category of Best Publication for T(w)eens. Er.. that’s not my age group! And since I’ve grown up I don’t really like reading YA or children’s books. But it didn’t bother me now ;) At least it’s obvious that a targeted audience of adults is not a condition for being called a graphic novel (as some argue).

Russell, who’s some sort of god in the graphic novel world, says about his adaptations:

“The appeal of an adaptation is in starting a piece secure that there’s literary worth in the source material. If it fails, I can’t blame it on that. I’ve always been fascinated by the challenge , the puzzle-solving challenge of taking a piece apart line by line and reassembling it into an entirely different art form.

[..] It’s the beautiful writing. It also helps that Neil has a huge following so I know all the effort I put into the work will actually be seen. I’ve done plenty of work that left me feeling I’d thrown it down a well. Doesn’t happen with Neil’s stories.”

Covers Persepolis 1 & 2I bought my comics for the read-a-thon following advice from veteran participants. Next to Coraline and The Best of Mutts I ended up with Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi. But during my 24 hours of reading I only got to read Coraline! Which indeed made a nice change of palate. And as you notice I’ve come to learn some things about the graphic novel world at the same time ;)

Now that I’ve crawled out of my familiar reading nook I might also try one of Gaiman’s actual fantasy books — next year. For the rest of 2009 there’s something else to consider: with my other graphic books on Mt. TBR I might join the Graphic Novels Challenge I would only need to decide on two more before December 31st to make the minor level of six books. Why not reread Maus volumes I & II?

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