A Response to Tony Long
Part of me wonders exactly how serious Tony Long is. After all, his column is titled “The Luddite.” He has an online persona he needs to uphold.
To be honest, I can see where he’s coming from, especially as an educator. I, too, worry about the declining literacy of our students. However, studies have shown a link between comics and increased literacy skills. Often, comics readers are just plain readers, and many fans of prose literature attribute their love of reading to comics. We also can’t forget that we describe the act of reading comics as just that: reading. There’s no other word that can adequately describe how we interact with stories told in that medium.
I just wanted to get all that out there – I know it’s not germaine to the issues Mr. Long raises. Here’s how I understand his argument:
1. Sequential images (comics) and prose are different.
2. Prose is an inherently superior medium. (And more difficult to create than comics.)
And here’s how I respond: #2 is just plain stupid. Different media have different strengths. There are some things that comics is better at, and some things that prose is better at. Try writing prose instructions on how to put together Ikea furniture and tell me how it goes. And while you’re at it, try replicating in prose the visceral poignancy of that final, black panel in Adrian Tomine’s “Supermarket” (a short story in his excellent Sleepwalk and Other Stories, in case you’re
#1 is much more intriguing. It seems like a true statement, and in many ways it is, but prose has its roots in sequential images. The two aren’t as separate as they might seem. Many written languages (Chinese, for example) still bear a lot of the artifacts of their pictoral ancestry. Are works created in Chinese less literary than works created in phonetic languages simply because Chinese is more pictoral? How about works created in ancient Chinese, in which the characters clearly resemble what they represent?
I don’t think the boundary between prose and sequential images is that stark, and I think the generation raised on multimedia documents understands this. In fact, I believe this new generation actually blurs that boundary. My students are used to reading documents made up of words and images, sound files and movies. They aren’t disturbed when these elements bleed into each other – when words use visual devices to enhance what they’re communicating, when images are made up of textual elements.
The nomination of a graphic novel for the National Book Award, especially in the YA category, shows that the judges are aware of this. I also find evidence for this boundary blurring in M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, one of my fellow nominees.
Octavian Nothing is a brilliant book. Please go read it if you haven’t. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book (for me, at least) is Anderson’s use of visual storytelling devices. For example, Anderson uses different fonts and font styles to communicate time, place, and emotion.
There are other, more striking, examples. In an early chapter, the protagonist opens the door to a forbidden room and is startled by a sign hanging on the wall, a sign reveals the secret behind the peculiarities of his existence. That sign is DRAWN in the middle page. It slaps you in the face on the page turn, much as it does Octavian when he opens the door.
Towards the end of the book (here comes a spoiler, so go away until you’ve actually read it), after Octavian suffers a gruesome personal tragedy, entire passages of the book are scribbled out with what looks to be a crow quill pen. The pages of angry lines and ink splotches communicate as much or more about Octavian’s state of mind as the paragraphs that came before.
No one would argue that M.T. Anderson’s book is not a novel, but does Anderson’s inclusion of graphic devices dimish the “novel-ness” of Octavian Nothing? Does it make Anderson less of a “novelist”?
Not to me. To me, it shows that he committed to the telling of his story above all else, and that he is willing to use whatever devices modern printing technology affords to communicate effectively. To me, it makes him a storyteller worthy of my admiration.