“You read that stuff?”
I get mixed reactions when I read graphic novels in sight of other people. The best was the look on my dad’s face when he saw me reading Watchmen on the living room couch: “I took you for a proper Victorian novel-reading type,” he said.
I replied, “Not exclusively.”
With this summer’s publication and completion of the graphic novel series Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire, I’ve been rethinking why I like this form so much and wondering just how it works its magic.
In the beginning, there were Saturday morning funnies. As a child I was obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes and I still look forward to the full-colour comics in the Saturday Star. Therein, I think, lies the basis of prejudice against graphic novels. What appear like simple pictures with flat colour and dumbed-down text makes sequential art seem like a medium for those who can’t stomach the idea of a “real” book. If this is you, go read some of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and then we can talk.
As it stands today, the study of English literature has three major branches: prose, poetry, and drama. Graphic novels don’t yet have a place in the great canon of English books, although they seem to be forming a canon of their own to get revenge. There is much argument for opening up the canon to include writing by authors who aren’t DWEM (dead white European males, for the non-English majors), and I’m not against this in the least. But we should be bringing in not only new writers, but also new mediums.
If you think about it, graphic novels make a lot of sense. As human beings, we experience the world through both images and words.
“Well,” you say to me, “watch a darn movie then.”
And I say to you, “No.” Because I’ve seen lots of movies, and after a while you realize the genre can be pretty predictable and very, well, mainstream. Actors and plots are consistently repeated. Occasionally, a good film will subvert this. Occasionally. Graphic novels, though, rework everything you thought you knew. Watchmen takes the superhero story to a whole new level; Fun Home reconfigures the autobiography. Sweet Tooth takes the ever-popular post-apocalyptic genre and contorts it into an uncensored, heartwarming horror show. There is no censorship, and that’s good thing. Art should never be checked.
The most important element of this volume of Sweet Tooth is its conclusion. The last instalment remains true to its prequels, delivering a raw, beautifully illustrated, climactic novel featuring the most rewarding and frustrating ending of any book I’ve read since The Handmaid’s Tale.
The moral of the story? Not everything is clear. That’s just life. The reason this is so bothersome is the suspense that leads up to it. The timing is impeccable; Sweet Tooth’s s edge-of-your-seat tone never disappoints. At first I thought I hadn’t understood what Lemire was trying to tell me; then I realized that ambiguity can be purposeful. The character arcs, if not the main plot, are allowed a beautiful ending. Bring your tissues.