Concept Comparisons as they relate to Understanding Comics
by M. Murphy ©2014
I love graphic novels. They have always been a big part of my life from as early as I can remember; from simple comics produced by Marvel and DC, and EC comics. Underground comics like Zap Comix, created by geniuses Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Harvey Kurtzman, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, and S. Clay Wilson. Groundbreaking efforts from Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal with artists named Enki Bilal, Richard Corben, Jean Giraud aka Moebius, Liberatore’, and Milo Manara just to name a fraction. These are the examples of my art heroes, my art mentors, my guides in helping to understand different points of view not entertained or expanded upon by other media sources for whatever reasons regarding topics that profoundly impact society and individuals from all walks of life.
Two topics in particular that have had an enormous impact on humanity are eloquently conveyed in graphic novel form; The Jewish Holocaust as portrayed in Maus, by Art Spiegelman, and the Islamist Fundamentalist takeover of Iran as portrayed in Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. Ethnic cleansing is not an easy subject to stomach let alone teach without some trepidation. Most media sources gloss over much detail in exchange for visual/emotional sound bites, be they inert and innocuous, or shocking and incomprehensible; either way it seems agenda supersedes teachable moments. That said, the graphic novel, like Maus and Persepolis, seem to be a most excellent form of teaching and conveying information that otherwise might get lost in a world where 30 second sensationalism is pervasive and truth is an afterthought, and other forms of media miss the mark in involving people, and invoking change.
I write this without hesitation and with full confidence for many reasons. The first reason being that graphic novels offer something much more than just data; textbooks lack personality and often lose the interest of the reader. Moreover, graphic novels stand apart from television and other books in that they invite the reader to become a part of the story whereas television although closely related doesn’t quite invite deeper cognitive experiences the way a graphic novel does. The standard printed novel and book convey an abundance of detail when it comes to storytelling but are lacking when it comes to inviting the reader to implement closure as frequently or deep as the graphic novel. But this is not to say that novels don’t invite closure, rather I feel the cognitive connections are different. Another reason I think the graphic novel is a better method is due to the inclusion of highly personal artwork. Textbooks typically use generic illustrations, data charts, and sometimes photographs to support information. Rarely does a standard novel use any form of artwork other than the cover, but this aspect is extremely vital in that many people will choose a book based on that artwork; it helps to complete the sale in the mind for both author and reader.
Another thing about graphic novels is that they seem to be something like a living document; a record of creative expression and unique perspective. Actual documentaries like films, picture books, music, and visual art are quite different than the graphic novel but can be just as successful at dealing with complex issues, but the graphic novel seems best suited for this purpose. The impetus for this particular assertion originates from my experiences and desire to engage in higher learning techniques like transcendental meditation, visualization and affirmation, and learning as play, just to name a few. It is as if a graphic novel is being played in the mind; a transparency overlay embedded in the visual cortex, or something.
When comparing the graphic novels Maus and Persepolis as they relate to concepts found in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics one doesn’t have to look too far as both Maus and Persepolis convey all of the concepts covered by McCloud.
To begin, Maus and Persepolis follow the concept of six steps; idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface. In fact, both graphic novels start out with an integrated preface/intro by each author who states their idea/purpose quite plainly. In Maus, Spiegelman begins the book with a flashback to 1958 highlighting an incident of his childhood where he was the recipient of uncompassionate behavior (Spiegelman 5, 6). It becomes clear in the next few pages that the author wants to move forward with his book, and is urged by his Father and stepmother to complete his book (Spiegelman 11-13). In Persepolis, a young Marjane was motivated by her experiences and reveals her contemplations with God which seem to be the impetus behind her idea/purpose, helping her to understand what is happening to her country, the people, and the future of both; she wanted to be a Prophet, and in a way she is (Satrapi 3-9). Whether these authors know it or not the six steps add up to what amounts as a living document of truly significant historical events. I understand that each author may have intended something completely different and that their idea stage in no way relates to my point of view, but I feel that the beginning of each book, including Understanding Comics, clearly states an intent, or idea.
Moving forward, in terms of graphic style, line use, symbolism and use of iconography, archetypal utilization, closure, timing, and flow, both graphic novels utilize these concepts with plenty of differences but each work stands alone quite strongly, and, both works relate.
First, let’s look at graphic style. Maus is very masculine and rife with background details whereas Persepolis is more feminine and delicate with minimal background detail yet still conveys as much power and strength through the use of black. The graphic style of Maus is reminiscent of works by artist Robert Crumb and the underground comic art of the 1960’s; each drawing utilizes a type of hatching and shakiness adding life to each page. The graphic style of Persepolis has the boldness and smooth intimate delicacy of art nouveau yet is rendered completely in solid black and white, and like Maus, adds life to each page.
With graphic style comes the use of line. The use of line in Maus has great movement and energy, and, is very heavy handed for all characters and subject matter while background details are penned with a bit finer line and executed with consistency throughout the whole book. The use of line in Persepolis is consistent throughout but is flowing, smooth, and more refined, and, with lots of negative space used as white outlining when all solid black is being used. Each graphic novel uses line in a way that lends support to the intense subject matter and who it is written by and for. If the line use styles were switched I don’t know if the graphic novels would be as successful in being effective teaching tools.
Next comparison is the flow of the panels and how each story progresses. Both graphic novels follow a fairly conventional flow of panels for storytelling, and this is just fine. Each book could have easily integrated some really wild placement of panels because each story has such intensity but simplicity always trumps sensationalism. This simplistic convention really helps to move each story forward with ease as opposed to using other forms to emphasize climactic moments; this simple flow really showcases the merit and strength of each story.
The use of time is really wonderful in both graphic novels, and both utilize time quite differently. In Maus, time jumps back and forth as the story unfolds, it is seamless and expected because Maus is being narrated by the author’s father Vladek, in present day while taking us back in time so we may experience what he experienced. In Persepolis, time progresses naturally as Marjane grows from chapter to chapter. There are also flashback time jumps inserted to accommodate the stories of other characters, but Marjane narrates and tells her story much like Vladek; it is as if the story is taking place while we are reading it as opposed to a mere re-telling. This use of timeline really helps to connect emotions to the subject matter and provides even greater context for closure.
Regarding closure, both graphic novels utilize this concept quite effectively. We really don’t need to see violence and gore when we can imagine it beyond any comprehension. Using lots and lots of artwork specific to these graphic novels to show violence just wouldn’t work, but it does work in how it is minimally conveyed, and, when showing the aftermath of such events; our mind can easily fill in the blanks. Moreover, closure is attained not just between the frames but during the frames as well because of what is being said; we are invited to imagine everything as each story unfolds just through storytelling.
The final comparisons have to deal with symbolism, iconography, and archetypical utilization, and both graphic novels display many of these elements throughout each work respectively. Maus begins with its cover art, the perversion of an ancient iconic symbol that originally represented transcendence through the cycle of life in many cultures long before Hitler’s derangement and perversion in to a hated icon. The cover art of Persepolis harkens more archetypical imagery blended with symbolism indicative of Middle Eastern culture; the inclusion of a sad girl adorned in a veil conveys a new symbolism when paired with the stylized motifs. In fact, Persepolis conveys much more symbolism throughout compared to Maus. Moreover, Persepolis blends its symbolism together with archetypes to create new symbols, icons, and identifiers in juxtaposition to tradition. Furthermore, the use of repetition in Persepolis really enhances the underlying messages in this respect (Satrapi 5, 11, 18, 28, 40, 89, 95, and 103). Maus relies upon archetypical utilization by portraying Mice as Jews and Cats and Nazis. This convention makes the symbolism much stronger, especially when iconography is paired with imagery in some of the panels, particularly the chapter title pages (Spiegelman 9, 25, 41, 71, 95, and 129).
I have read Maus dozens of times since its first release in Raw Magazine but this is my first reading of Persepolis. Admittedly, I always passed it by for some reason or another when selecting graphic novels for purchase; I am thankful that I now have a copy to hand down to my son when he gets older. Both stories are living documents and deserve much more attention.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994. Print.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.