Whilst graphic novels can explore profound places and complex characters, they are admittedly written ‘movie-versions’ of modern literature. They are big-kids picture books, and anyone who says otherwise is being precious.
You can certainly academicise the genre, postulate the graphic novel as the emerging interface between visual and written mediums, and trick yourself in to thinking that reading graphic novels is quirky and highbrow. In doing this however you would have to live with yourself being a twerp.
Graphic novels are great for readers who lack the attention span needed to ingest the building narrative tension of a novel and they serve as a text that can punctuate the droughts we have between lengthy texts. They are a straightforward and amusing way to enjoy ideas that would otherwise be communicated with the science of big words.
Because graphic novels take a considerably shorter time to read, and due to the accompanying visuals, you instantly engage in your story the second you open the page. There is no need to flick through the previous pages to understand why so-in-so said this or that, or who the shit that new character is. The pictures are there for you, the sentences are generally short and to the point and because of this, you can read them 15 minutes at time – an added convenience for public transport commuters.
Below are a few in my collection, and a good as a starting point for anyone curious to pick up a graphic novel, but hesitant because they don’t wear thick-rimmed glasses and their nana’s ironically fashionable knit.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Essentially this text explores the complex relationship between a closet gay father and his gay daughter. As a reader you become involved with the strain and lack of transparency in their relationship, and are pulled through the narrative, due to the unusualness of the situation, curious to find out what the next peculiar event will reveal. Her follow up graphic novel Are You My Mother is slightly harder to swallow. In Are You My Mother Bechdel explores her relationship with her mother, using Virginia Woolfe and the psychoanalysis of Donald Winnicott as a backboard. Personally I struggled with this text, and might be because I was a bit dumb for it. I felt that academic speak and playful images contradicted each other slightly and because of this the general tone of the text was confused for me. I’ve never written and illustrated a novel, but when I do write one, I’ll ensure consistency and sell my book to an appropriate philistine audience.
The illustrations in Fun Home, also by Bechdel are brilliant in their simplicity and whilst every image is detailed, the line is thin and loose, complementing the playful however considered tone of the text.
Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Shortcomings is about a lousy boyfriend and girlfriend. It concerns a staled romantic relationship and a couple who have fatally discouraged what their partner finds rewarding and exciting. It’s an extremely easy read and ends unemphatically. The narrative is simplistic and realistic and because of this you feel a bit gross reading it, needing to remind yourself that monogamous doom is not inevitable and your bad habits will be just as endearing to your boyfriend in years to come as they are now.
Tomine’s accompanying images are what drew me to this text. Clean lines and characters depicted in motion gives the text momentum. The text is all in capitals and the pages structured and architectural. Visually, this is one of the finest graphic texts I have read. If this text were a room, it would be a kitchen with dish drawers.
Army of God by David Axe and Tim Hamilton
This is an excellent read for those of us who are openly ignorant about the conflict in Central Africa and distinctly unsure about Invisible Children after the public masturbating incident. Before reading this I had only recently learned of Joseph Kony’s army violently molesting civilian security. In this text I learned about the history of the Congo, the Lord’s Resistance Army and the United States’ intervention in the region over two presidents. At times this text can read like an advertisement for America, but I’m increasing beginning to feel as though some American documentarians genuinely believe that America is the only country capable and willing and responsible enough to intervene in conflict that exists outside of America. Despite this, it’s worth reading to become informed.
Hamilton’s illustrations are appropriately crude, borrowing line from traditional African woodcuts and reflecting the viciousness in the content. The images at times downplay the grim and devastating truth to Joseph Kony’s rampage.
Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
In Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century live Estha and Fanya. The story is seen through the eyes of these sisters, as they grow and experience the life of New York during a vast immigrant expansion. The story is raw and provocative and largely set in a whorehouse, which is awesome. All the stereotypes you’d ever want are in there: the boisterous Madam, disgraced mother and the sleek and unapologetic courtesan.
It’s an eye opening account of a life hard to visualize and Corman’s illustrations work in the viewer being able to grasp this exciting and desperate time. The line in this novel is deliberate and the illustrations act as snapshots, documenting narrative and action with a bold poise.
The small downside to reading these novels is that you sometimes don’t experience the same feeling of triumph as you can reading an extended text. Despite this whimper, it’s a terrific way to become informed and to engage in stories, places and people outside of our lives, watching literature as you would a crafted piece of cinema. That graphic novels are becoming mainstream, giving artists with a love of stories and illustration a medium to exercise their creative talents is exciting. Give it a few years and they might just start popping up in dusty and charming second had bookstores, hopefully, because it’s a bloody expensive hobby.
Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival
Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you
LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).
This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.
In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.
“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”
In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:
I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived
In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.
Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power
Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.
When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.
by Staceyann Chin
Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.
A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus
The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.
In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:
“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.
There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.
While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.
Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.
Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.
Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”
Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.
The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.
In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.
Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.
I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.
If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.
To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.
Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22 September 2019.