For many readers, the idea of dealing with something preposterous, unrealistic and altogether over the top — like, for instance, reading a graphic novel that’s 150-pages deep in far-out sci-fi fantasy — is laughable. For that tethered-to-reality camp, if there’s a need to read serious literature in graphic novel form, they aim to stick with a story that’s historically accurate, true-to-life and utterly devoid of magic. In other words: If it’s serious, it shouldn’t be too imaginative.
Recently, a friend and I were browsing through the comic book section of our local bookstore. He reads quite a bit but shies away from most graphic novels. The man climbs mountains and worked as an EMT. He talks about grisly, pus-dripping wounds in a way that denotes a distinct lack of queasiness. If he could punch through granite, he would — in fact, he’s probably training to do that right now. So his stories need to be serious. The grittier and more realistic, the better.
My friend immediately gravitated towards Max Brooks’s The Harlem Hellfighters. A great pick, but my enthusiasm kicked in and I tossed a dozen books his way — classic DC and Marvel titles, and newer fare too. I suggested three popular graphic novels, in particular: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Fables by Bill Willingham.
The pitch didn’t go well. I told him that, in Sex Criminals, the main characters have the ability to stop time when they have sex; he grew a little quiet after that. I told him that Fables is about classic fairytale characters living in New York; he returned it to the shelf. Saga was my little haymaker: It’s like Star Wars, I told him, but with more pregnancy. He read the first page, where the main character Alana is giving birth and screams, “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!” He put it back.
He wasn’t comfortable picking up any of them. Most seemed too ridiculous for his taste. He scooped up a Malcolm Gladwell book about statistics and birthdays and something about hockey. It was fine. Time-stopping sex was not mentioned again.
Saga, Sex Criminals and Fables — yes, they are all ridiculous. But that’s fine. It’s fine for people to use their sexy powers to freeze time and steal money; it’s fine to read a story about a chain-smoking Big Bad Wolf who spends his days working as a noir-ish New York detective. There are plenty of well-written stories that deal with realism, but fantastic and generally over-the-top narratives with a healthy smattering of hand-drawn pictures shouldn’t be ignored — just so long as they tell a good story. If a story is entertaining, well written and deals with issues that everyone (no matter age or gender) can relate to, does it really matter if the main characters are talking rodents with a knack for dropping F-bombs?
Saga tells the story of an intergalactic war and two people who are caught in the middle of it as they try to start a family. They fly through space in a tree-rocket, use reality-bending magic and fight a royal robot with a television screen for a face — but the issues they confront, the concerns they have about raising a child in a violent, hateful world, are relatable. In Sex Criminals, the main characters have sex and stop time, but they still have to deal with average, brand-new relationship issues; they still have to communicate, they still have to work on themselves and their powers only complicate things. And in Fables, beloved childhood fairytale characters are saddled with modern dilemmas and responsibilities: divorce, jealousy, rebellion, debt, infidelity.
A good story is meant to transport. When a wildly imaginative graphic novel takes a reader somewhere new and exciting, and he/she become invested in the setting, the characters and their feelings, I consider that to be a good story. By delving into fantasy and sci-fi elements that are often viewed as ridiculous, an author challenges us to delve head-first into wonder. Unrealistic storylines offer up the opportunity to question reality. Nonfiction strictly adheres to the rules of our world; even historical fiction does so to an extent. But sci-fi or fantasy bend the rules, and they create a high mark for literature: If a reader can care about a world that doesn’t exist and if that world is so beyond comprehension as to be completely unique, isn’t that the essence of a truly wonderful story? Exploring a world that defies science and logic allows us to expand our horizons, our imagination, our senses of self. Ridiculous graphic novels offer an opportunity to question the conventionally serious. They are little acts of rebellion.
The next time I pitch a graphic novel to my friend, I’ll first offer him a title better grounded in realism. Then, once he’s safely tethered, I’ll sneak in another that’s a bit more ridiculous. Everything will be fine. There will be no judgement; he’ll still get to read something serious. I might have to skip anything that deals with space babies, but I haven’t decided yet. Hopefully he hasn’t either.
Stefan A. Slater is a freelance writer from Los Angeles. He’s contributed to LA Weekly, Huck and Surfer, and he writes regularly for Southbay magazine. If he had to suggest one new graphic novel to pick up, it would be a dead tie between Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga and Jonathan Hickman’s East of West. You can check out more of Stefan's work over at StefanSlater.com.
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