Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds: Adventures in the Universe of Graphic Novels
by John David Ebert
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At first glance, a graphic novel is simply a comic book with a spine.
But a spine implies an organism with a higher, more evolved form of life—composed out of the vertebrae of individual comic books–especially when contrasted with, say, a more primordial organism like a comic strip, those early single-celled narrative protozoa whose advent not only preceded, but made the existence of the graphic novel possible in the first place.
A graphic novel, however, is not just a series of comics collected and bound into a single volume. There are many such collections, like The Essential X-Men, let’s say, that are produced and marketed to look like, and resemble, graphic novels, but they are merely expedient ways to sell off old comics that would otherwise be lying around in archives collecting dust. Such volumes are not really graphic novels at all because they do not tell a story (they tell many). A graphic novel, to be more precise, is a series of comic books bound together with a spine that has a beginning, a middle and an end. The presence of a spine and the enclosing front and back covers gives the medium a self-contained completeness that demarcates it from that of the comic book proper, for a comic book is merely a temporal slice of a potentially infinite series of stories clustered around one or another superhero(es).
The graphic novel, in other words, provides boundaries to a specific comics narrative. It captures that narrative and removes it from the magma of an infinity of other such narratives, extracting it like a singularity from a flow, a singularity that grabs and arrests a story from the endless oceans of such stories that are daily produced by our culture industry. The graphic novel draws a membrane around such a story-cluster, one that is not unlike the lipid wall of a cell that encloses its contents within a tiny universe, a microworld that, when one steps up for a closer view, turns out to be full of giant humans.
In that respect, then, the graphic novel is an entirely new medium with its own bias that makes it uniquely different from other literary media like the novel and the poem. And yet the graphic novel, like all new media, is also a hybrid of earlier media forms, for, like the ancient Byzantine mosaics with their images of giant humans capable of mighty deeds, such as the Emperor Justinian or Christ Pantocrator, the graphic novel is likewise composed out of a sequence of tiles
–or tesserae as the tiles of the mosaics were technically known–which, however, do not weave a static and frozen image of an Eternal Christian icon, but rather a motion picture sequence of tiles that is animated by the viewer’s highly participatory imagination into a temporal sequence of moving images. The graphic novel, that is to say, substitutes the viewer’s mind for a mechanical apparatus: instead of a movie projector, it is the reader who has to set the whole thing in motion, even perhaps, providing his own sound effects as he plays through the tiles. We can regard the medium, then, as a sort of cross between a Byzantine mosaic and a motion picture film.
But from the point of view of the morphology of history, rather than media studies, the graphic medium can be regarded as a contemporary reiteration of a certain type of folk art that comes into being at the tail end of all the great high civilizations as they are lumbering on their way down toward earth like a mighty Leviathan that has been dealt its final, mortal blow. Both India and Egypt, for instance, had their graphic novel analogues.
In India, the equivalent of the graphic novel came in the form of so-called palm-leaf manuscripts, made from the dried strips of the palmyra palm tree. Once dried, these strips were incised with little styluses known as lekhani, which left dark runnels in the fibers that were then later inked in with a mixture of soot and water. Sequences of pictures were created, sometimes painted in color, sometimes left in black and white, which illustrated epics like The Ramayana or the Gita Govinda, or else old myths and legends in pictorial sequential form for easy digestion by the masses who were too illiterate to read the longer epics. The dried palm fronds had holes punched into their corners, so that the strips could be hung from a single cord that tied them all together in between two leaves of hard wood that functioned as front and back covers. Such books became popular from about the time of the Mughals (especially under Akbar, who was the first to commission an illustrated version of The Ramayana around 1580 AD, although this was not a palm-leaf manuscript). It is, therefore, a largely late development in the history of Indian media.[i]
The Egyptian equivalent of the graphic novel came in the form of the Books of the Netherworld that began to adorn the walls of the tombs of The Valley of the Kings from about the time of Tuthmosis I (c. 1500 BC). For the Egyptians, however, the image was never merely an image, but the visual equivalent of a magical spell that was designed to make something happen by the principle of sympathetic magic. This is why dangerous animals such as crocodiles or scorpions are never depicted in such art unless they are being slain by solar heroes like Horus, or have spears thrust through them, thus neutralizing their magical power over the soul travelling through the afterlife. Such Books of the Dead—and there were many—were roadmaps, as it were, to help guide the soul of the deceased through the perils of the afterlife. They had a magically effective purpose, and over time, image began to predominate over word on these funerary papyri until, by the 22nd Dynasty, images are almost the only thing rendered upon them.[ii]
So, the graphic novel is not an entirely new medium, but rather today’s equivalent of very old mediatic phenomena, which is to say that, as the culture forms of a society slowly break down, and the high plastic arts become ever less and less competent and sure of themselves, so the slack is taken up by the folkloric media of the masses who fill the semiotic vacancies opened up by the collapse of the metaphysical signifieds with their own popular “tales of the soul’s conquest of evil,” to borrow from the title of a Heinrich Zimmer book.[iii]
Like the Indian palm-leaf manuscripts and the Egyptian Books of the Netherworld, the graphic novel, too, is a constantly obsessive reiteration of the soul’s conquest of evil, in image form.
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[i] See Joanna Williams, The Two-Headed Deer: Illustrations of the Ramayana in Orissa (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 44.
[ii] Erik Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), 26.
[iii] Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).