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date: 17 January 2019

graphic novels

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

Daniel Hahn

graphic novels 

for young adult readers. The term is now conventionally used to describe longer (often book-length), more complex comics. In the best examples, these utilize the relationship between image and text to create a layered and involving reading experience. Graphic novels for young adult readers are a vibrant and rapidly expanding phenomenon. Despite their diversity, they have key thematic preoccupations, as exemplified by the following seminal examples.

Multimedia artist Dave McKean collaborated with Neil Gaiman on the Sandman comics series, and picture books such as The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish (2004) and Wolves in the Walls (2003). In his subtle visual treatment of David Almond’s The Savage (2009), the charged interaction of image and text movingly articulates the rage and grief of Blue, the young protagonist, dealing with the death of his father. The novel charts Blue’s own creative and ultimately therapeutic journey as the writing brings to life the titular savage. The ability of aesthetic engagement to heal grief is also at the heart of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). Selznick utilizes the visual language of silent film, especially the work of Georges Méliès, alternating between wordless pencil-drawn sequences and sections of conventional prose narrative.

Selznick’s use of intertextual references to other media in both form and content is utilized by Bryan Talbot in The Tale of One Bad Rat, as a means of exploring dark and difficult subject matter. The experiences of a runaway girl who has been abused by her father are mediated through her recollection of Beatrix Potter tales. The emotional space this distancing affords her ultimately enables both growth and healing.

The pleasures and perils of first love are movingly depicted in Craig Thompson’s autobiographical novel Blankets (2003). Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian community which sees his artistic abilities as a threat, Thompson tenderly charts his discovery of love and his burgeoning sexuality at Church camp. Thompson frames his recollections through a carefully constructed novelistic structure with a bravura use of visual imagery that develops alongside his protagonist. A different kind of conflict lies at the heart of another adolescent love story, Skim (2008), by Canadian cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. Ostensibly the diary of a lesbian teenage Wiccan who has an affair with her teacher, this novel sets the visual depiction of her experiences against her verbal self-constructions in her diary, challenging the reader to read between the lines.

This engagement with non-normative forms of identity and culture finds its fullest expression in one of the key thematic strands of young adult comics, the representation of the cultural other. Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography Persepolis (English trn. Blake Ferris and Mattias Ripa, published in two vols, 2003–4) depicts the childhood of the daughter of radical parents under the rise of the Ayatollahs in Iran. The visual element of this book amplifies the cultural journey of the protagonist, while the style of the work synthesizes the iconographic traditions of East and West, as Satrapi’s parents engineer her escape to Paris. French cartoonist Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat (English trn. Alexis Siegel and Anjali Singh, 2005) begins in Morocco and similarly ends in Paris. His spirited heroine must enter the modern world and leave her village far behind. She is both helped and hindered by her cat, which after an unfortunate incident with the family parrot is able to talk, and demands a bar mitzvah from her rabbinic father.

Like much graphic work for young adults, these examples all provide an insider’s perspective on selves and communities on the brink of major change, of young characters fusing complex cultures, coming to terms with trauma and tragedy in works celebrating the transformative power of verbal and visual narrative. While younger children tend to be served by other kinds of comics, some children’s books have been given graphic-style novel treatments. There is a bumper assortment of graphic re-imaginings in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature (2014).