I have a growing fascination for the graphic novel. Maybe because it’s an art form I’ve never attempted, maybe because I once had dreams of being a cartoonist, graphic novels keep inspiring my determination to read and know them.
The other day saw yet another first attempt. Out of a desire to be edgy—European—I swept past the Japanese manga, and picked up the graphic adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It had been a grueling day of research, and a stiff shot of Sherlock seemed about right.
Happily, the artist showed respect for Conan Doyle’s narrative. Holmes looked like Holmes, even to the satisfaction of the snootiest Sherlockian—tall, high forehead, eyes close together. More intelligent than handsome.
But I couldn’t do it. I tried. I wanted to. Not matter what I did, the disjunction of the prose, the constant intrusion of the image, left me in despair. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the immersion into the Sherlockian world I wanted. It felt uncomfortably like diving into a frozen pool.
Admittedly, the artist faced a daunting assignment. The opening scene of The Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t exactly bursting with action. Holmes and Watson chat about a walking stick, with glittering repartee and an occasional reshuffling of the breakfast things.
The artist tried to engage different angles—wide sweeps of the room, close ups on various objects, a view of the street over Holmes’s shoulder—but he had almost nothing to work with. Later, perhaps, with the monstrous hound and the gray cliffs and the moor, he could have had room to expand.
But my fifteen tired seconds had gone. The volume hadn’t caught me. The comic book framework had drained the story of its Sherlockian flavor. There were little snippets of it at the top, in speech balloons, but it wasn’t enough.
Is there something I’m missing in how to read and understand graphic fiction? Is there a technique to reading it, a talent acquired over time? Or was the mistake inherent in its inception, and great prose fiction shouldn’t be converted to a graphic medium?
They are different, of course. Perhaps, for someone accustomed to reading graphic novels, it would be as difficult to leap over to reading undiluted Conan Doyle. Perhaps we both should learn to understand the other.
I think there is a connection between the forms, written and graphic, of the fantasy novel. I think both are capable of great subtlety and power. And I think understanding both of them, and why and how they’re different, will enhance our understanding of the genre as a whole.
Fantasy, after all, extends beyond its medium. We use any medium to conjure a world, to engender wonder, which pressures and expands our comprehension of this world. Fantasy allows us an open space in which to ask questions which we might not dare within the confines of this world. Each medium will, in its own way, inspire different questions.
I suppose, if Sherlock were reading this, he’d tell me that I have (as usual) missed all the truly vital points, and gotten everything else wrong. But that’s what fantasy is, isn’t it? We guess and mistake continually, to bit by bit throw light on truth.
And, ahem, I am intending to write a little monograph on the subject…