Monday, September 14, 2009

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a graphic novel worth?

So it seems like everyone I've talked to is pretty interested in my paper (I'm being vain, haha) that I wrote on how the graphic novel (comic book) Watchmen is a good example of the definition of literature. If you've read the book, not just seen the movie, you can let me know if you agree! This is just the rough draft, I have a little revision to do . . .

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a graphic novel worth?

A generic definition of the word literature may read as: creative writing of recognized artistic value. However, what literature is has been argued over by writers, readers, experts and critics for years. Some would say literature is only the “important” works or the well-respected books of a culture. There are many components that make a work literature, but one of them is not the exclusion of visuals. By this I mean whether the story has a few photographs or drawings to illustrate the story, or is totally made up of them does not matter. One such novel that challenges the assumption that literature is written word only is the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Many would argue this work is just a comic book and not worthy of the title of literature. Nevertheless, the work should be considered literature for three reasons; the work is still relevant to the reader years after it was written, it employs many elements of literature, and the story can be read on many different levels.

One test of whether something is literature or not should be if the writing is still relevant years later, Watchmen passes this test. Watchmen was originally published in 1986, but twenty-three years later the themes still seem familiar. The story takes place in an alternate version of 1985, the political climate is charged because of the cold war with Russia. Though the context of the Cold War no longer applies, today’s War on Terror has many similarities. The threat from a militant country, political use and misuse of power and the culture of fear are still things that are heard in the news of the U.S. everyday. The book follows a number of characters that live in New York City. These characters are used to show the common man, as opposed to the superheroes in the rest of the story. These common people are living under a shadow of fear brought on by the Cold War with Russia. One character complains “It ain’t fair. We didn’t ask for no war . . .The ordinary guy got no protection. Like a turtle with no shell.” (Chapter X, p. 23) This echoes the culture of fear that many in New York or other large cities felt after the terrorist attacks of 09/11.

The depth of the story is another characteristic that classifies Watchmen as literature. There are many different levels on which it can be read, the story employs a large amount of character background development, foreshadowing, symbolism and symmetrical story telling. To develop the characters not only are flashbacks and dialog used, but at the end of each chapter an excerpt from a fictional text is included. It may part of a newspaper article on of the superheroes, a police report, or a scientific essay on a superhero’s power. For example, at the end of chapter six we are shown the psychiatric evaluation on one of the superheroes who has turned toward becoming a violent vigilante. After reading the private thoughts he shared of his troubled childhood though, the reader will at least understand, if not approve of, his actions. This extra information draws the reader in, helping the reader understand and relate to each character more.

Foreshadowing and symbolism may be the two most important elements of literature used in Watchmen. One important symbolic element used is the face of a clock. From the title of watchmen, which can mean a guard or watcher as well, to the many instances of background imagery that involve clocks, the reader will notice this theme. The doomsday clock, which appears to count down at the beginning of each chapter, foreshadows a countdown to some disaster that is unknown. The reader will infer that it is World War III, but may be surprised at the terrible event that actually occurs at the end. The author was also thinking very deeply about the concept of time throughout the story. One of the main characters, Dr. Manhattan, can see time in a different way, allowing him to see the future, present and past simultaneously. The author was likely considering Einstein’s theory that time is relative and not immutable. In the apartment of Dr. Manhattan we can see a painting by Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, that hangs on the wall and as Dr. Manhattan is pondering it he is saying “I can’t prevent the future. To me, it’s already happening.” (Chapter IV, p16) That painting, involving melting clocks, is thought to be based on Einstein’s theory as well.

The many different lines of plot that intersect involve a narrative of the present time (1985) involving a group of superheroes, but also intertwines stories from their past, from their parents and predecessors and from a graphic novel within the story called The Black Freighter. There is a young boy who reads a comic book that often parallels what is happening in the city around him. On Chapter V, page 12 in the Black Freighter comic the main character states “I’d swallowed too much horror” when talking about the evil deeds he had to do to survive a shipwreck. As the young boy is reading this comic by the newsstand the owner of the newsstand is wondering aloud about the impending war, he says “I mean, World War Three, it’s a nightmare. The only people who can even think about it are the arms companies.” The author is trying to draw a comparison here between the evil deeds that the character in the pirate comic is doing to save himself and his family with the evil deeds that are being done just for political or financial gain. This type of comparison continues throughout the story, adding a layer of symmetrical story telling that makes the reader stop and ponder each frame. Re-reading these passages is necessary to understanding the stories as well and comparing them to each other.

The argument of whether a graphic novel can be considered literature will most likely not be ended soon. In the same vein as what classifies a “movie” versus a “film,” it can be hard to define what characteristics transcend a work from being simply entertainment to art. The authors chose to illustrate the work, which eliminated the need for descriptions of the setting, but also allowed them to enter subtle imagery in the background. Would the work be as effective if it had been words only? Would the image of a doomsday clock in the background of an important scene read the same way as it looks drawn in the novel? The answers to these questions will most likely lead to the conclusion that the authors used imagery to tell the story because it was best suited to the work, not because they were unable to write a novel of words only. Watchmen is a story that can be appreciated by many ages and levels of thinking, but the elements of literature the authors included certainly make the work deserving of the word literature.


plane jane said...

you are adorable.

skinnyGLASSESgirl said...

damn. ram jam.

skinnyGLASSESgirl said...

yes. it's the same Sherman and Jamie! SMALL WORLD!

melississippi said...

awesome small world :) ram jam? like the band you posted on the other day?