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…


3 thoughts on “elementary?

  1. As an art form the graphic novel is still very much in its infancy, though I suppose an adaptation of Conan Doyle would fill about the same function as the “Great Illustrated Classics” library. To me it’s at its best when it’s evoking the old-fashioned large-form newspaper comics (“Krazy Kat” used to take up the better part of a page, and they wonder why print media is dying today), or breaking new ground altogether. There’s been some interesting work done with Batman lately.

    The titles I hear consistently mentioned by aficionados as the best instances of the form so far are “Sandman” (written by Neil Gaiman) and “Watchmen” (by Alan Moore). I haven’t had a chance to investigate either, but knowing Gaiman I’d say it’s promising.

  2. I can understand Doyle not translating well: Holmes just isn’t visual enough, those are stories crafted for its particular medium–the serial publication in the Strand. I wonder if I do feel that great prose fiction–at least of a certain type–shouldn’t be converted to this medium.

    Before you give up on it entirely, try a masterpiece that was crafted for this medium. I recommend either Gaiman’s epic “Sandman” series (start with the “Season of Mists” collection, #4 in the 10-book collected series, rather than at the beginning where he hadn’t found his voice yet) or Miller’s groundbreaking Batman story “The Dark Knight Returns.” A non-fantasy worth looking into is Art Speigelman’s “Maus.”

  3. Well, I wasn’t trying to convey the impression that I’m ‘giving up’ on graphic fiction. Rather, I see myself as a sort of un-initiate. The good ones, and the right way to read them, are steadily eluding me.

    And there’s actually an exploding market for graphic fiction outside the US–Europe and (of course) Japan have seen it grow into a multi-million dollar/pound/yen industry.

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