Graphic novels: Storytelling grows up in themes, images

Comics as literature?

It’s not as weird a notion as it once might have been. In fact, valley comic fans say most readers these days do recognize that graphic novels and comics can be home to solid storytelling in just about every genre and in both fiction and nonfiction.

But for those few holdouts who might remain, our comic fan consultants also are happy to offer a few titles that might help to convince comicphobes of the power that a combination of words and pictures can hold.

Condescension toward comics hasn’t disappeared completely, of course. “I think there’s a little bit of it there,” says Ralph Mathieu, owner of Alternate Reality Comics, 4110 S. Maryland Parkway, Suite 8, although he suspects that what does remain stems from a lack of awareness rather than reflexive snobbishness.

“I’ll see people who wander in, and invariably they’ll be surprised at the different stories comics can tell,” Mathieu says.

Readers can be spurred to discover, or rediscover, comics after learning that a movie or TV show they like was adapted from one. That’s an obvious dynamic in the cases of such comic characters as Superman (“Man of Steel”), Batman (Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) or The Avengers.

But, says William Powell, owner of The Sci-Fi Center, 600 E. Sahara Ave., Suite 13, many fans of the hit cable series “The Walking Dead” may still not know that the story was a comic before it was a TV series.

Still, says Las Vegas writer and illustrator Pj Perez, “I don’t think they’re looked down on anymore as junk literature” and most readers no longer entertain the misperception that “it’s all heroes and villains fighting over nonsense.”

Suzanne Scott, chairwoman of the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival committee, agrees that readers realize that comics “can show intricate stories and have some really heavy topics and deal with them in different ways.”

To prove the point, we asked our consultants to name a few titles that can illustrate to skeptics the breadth of subjects comics can tackle. Like any such sampling, there’s plenty of room for disagreement, and space limitations allow us to select only a handful of titles.

First, any list of stereotype-busting graphic novels probably will put “Maus” at or near the top. The 1991 graphic novel by Art Spiegelman was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize and regularly is seen on literary best-of lists.

In his memoir, Spiegelman tells the story of his family during and after the Holocaust, depicting — in a bizarre tack that takes the story outside the realm of the expected —  Jews as mice, Nazis as cats and Poles as pigs. Scott notes that, among the other honors “Maus” has received, the book has been used as a text in school classes.

Moving to a life more mundane but also intriguing, the late Harvey Pekar was “probably the pioneer of the autobiographical slice-of-life story,” Mathieu says.

Over the course of several decades, Pekar — assisted by a roster of artists that includes Robert Crumb — chronicled his everyday life in Cleveland in a series of comic books he ironically titled “American Splendor.” Most of the individual comics have been assembled into paperback collections, including “Our Cancer Year,” about the author’s cancer battle.

For autobiography with an international bent, Derrick Taylor, owner of Comic Oasis, 3121 N. Rainbow Blvd. and the just-opened Supernova Comics at 450 Fremont St., Suite 167, at Neonopolis, suggests “Persepolis,” Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Cartoonist/writer Will Eisner is best-known for creating the landmark comic character “The Spirit.” But Eisner in 1978 also proved himself a pioneer of long-form comics with “A Contract with God,” a gritty graphic novel that examines the lives of Jewish immigrants in a New York City tenement.

Readers often talk about how a favorite novel or story helped them through a rough time in life. “Sometimes, with comics, it’s the same way,” says Scott, who counts as one of her own rough-time helpers “Strangers in Paradise.”

The self-published comic series by Terry Moore revolves around the changing relationships between two women and a man and the comics, Scott says, “helped me get through a divorce.”

But relationships can be funny, too. Adrian Tomine “does slice-of-life stuff,” Perez says.

“What actually turned me on to him was, he basically created a comic for his wedding. It was called ‘Scenes from an Impending Marriage’ and it was created just for the wedding family, but he ended up publishing it. And it’s something any couple can relate to.”

Fans of nonfiction will discover that comics can tackle some heavy real-life topics, too.

Mathematics and logic, for instance, are the subjects of “Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth” by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

“It’s about Bertrand Russell’s inquiry of the roots of mathematics and logic,” says Katherine Keller, who writes for SequentialTart.com, a pop culture and comics website, and is a library technician for UNLV Libraries.

“It’s, at the same time, a book about the nature of creativity,” Keller adds. “Most people don’t think of science and mathematics and engineering as acts of creativity, but as the creators of this story are telling Bertrand Russell’s story and his quest into logic and math, they also tell the story of how the comic is put together.”

Fans of mystery novels and true crime stories will find graphic novels a particularly vivid medium for telling stories in those genres. For example, “Road to Perdition,” the 2002 crime drama starring Tom Hanks, was based on a graphic novel by mystery writer Max Allan Collins.

Mathieu suggests that true crime devotees check out “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story,” about the hunt for the Seattle-area serial killer.

The graphic novel was written by Jeff Jensen, an entertainment journalist whose father was the senior investigator on the case in the ’90s, Mathieu says.

Keller suggests that mystery readers — particularly fans of the James Ellroy/“L.A. Confidential” school of detective fiction — check out “Criminal,” a series by Ed Brubaker that features stories told from the point of view of criminals.

“There’s a lot of homage to classic, hard-boiled detective works or classic noir stories, but it’s also very modern,” she says. “The plots are usually pretty twisty.”

For fans of fable, fantasy and myth — we’re looking at you, “Game of Thrones” aficionados — “Ravine” by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz, is “a classic epic fantasy,” Keller says. “It’s got dragons and magic, it’s got beautiful art in it and there is incredible depth to the world-building in it.”

Think of it, Keller says, of the story as falling “in the middle” of J.R.R. Tolkien (“The Lord of the Rings”) and George R. R. Martin (“Game of Thrones”).

Another graphic novel series, “Fables” by Bill Willingham, kicked off several years ago and, Keller says, the TV series “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” both “kind of draw from it.”

“It’s this idea that there is a secret New York City, and the characters from various nursery rhymes and fairy tales have been exiled and live here, in Fabletown,” Keller says. “It’s got all the classic excitement of good fairy tales or good myths, very dramatic but at times sidesplittingly funny.”

Finally, readers who have enjoyed “American Gods,” author Neil Gaiman’s novel, may not know that Gaiman also is a pioneer in comics and graphic novels. Gaiman’s “Sandman” series is so ambitious that it’s difficult to classify it as mere fantasy.

“He’s pulling from so many different civilizations and cultures, and you can read them without knowing all of these things,” Scott says. “But when you do, it just enriches it and enhances your enjoyment.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.

A map of some of Las Vegas comic book stores. Would you like to see one added? Email social@reviewjournal.com.