Not too long ago librarians would have balked at the idea of putting graphic novels, more commonly referred to as comic books, anywhere in their collection. Graphic novels have been considered time-wasters, subversive, perverse, and downright dangerous for a large part of their history, and until recently have been kept quite separate from what the reading world labels as ‘literature’. But as graphic novels continue to break story telling boundaries and constrictive genre labels, they are becoming a more and more common feature of not just library shelves, but university reading lists.
My love affair with comics started just before I graduated high school and has continued on ever since. But I don’t consider it a new passion; not really. I have always been a reader, devouring Seuss books from the age of five and up, and have spent many happy hours lost in the world of books. Graphic novels, though some may still wish to fence them off into their own pasture, are books at heart – they tell a story, construct characters, lead readers through a plot, and have themes, messages, and lessons all of their own. The fact that these stories are augmented, and in some cases entirely told, through illustrated panels, is somewhat beside the point.
The first complete graphic novel I ever read was Jeph Loeb’s and Tim Sale’sThe Long Halloween. I was a casual Batman fan before reading this series, though my friend, Phil, was already avidly involved in the DC Universe. It was he who recommended this book to me and assured me that I didn’t need an in-depth knowledge of Batman stories or characters to enjoy the book – an assurance I would like to pass on to anyone looking for a good entry point into the world of graphic novels.
When it comes to a creative team that hits it out of the park every single time, you can’t do better than Loeb and Sale. Up there with greats like Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Derek Jacobi and Shakespeare, Loeb’s writing takes on an extra luscious dimension when paired with Sale’s art, like a delicate truffle, and Sale’s art sells Loeb’s words harder than a newspaper boy with an empty belly. Aside from The Long Halloween, they have also worked together on titles such as Hulk Gray, Catwoman: When in Rome, & Spiderman Blue. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Tim Sale several times at the local comic-con, and almost always walk away with some special signatures and a great print (or two!).
Graphic novels, what I like to think of as graphic literature, have such wide appeal because human beings have always communicated visually. Even though we no longer use pictograms, all written languages today are made up of shapes and symbols to which we give meaning. Should we be surprised, then, when a well-executed panel from a comic evokes the same strong emotions as a passage from Keats? In fact, graphic literature is even more accessible than many of its cousins by the universality of visual communication. To fully understand a graphic novel like The Long Halloween, the text would have to be translated into a language I could read. But to get a feel for the story, to begin to unravel the tale’s secrets, all I need to do is look at the panels. The body language, the colors, the placement and size of their frames, all communicate the story as much, and sometimes more than, the words do.
The Long Halloween is a personal favorite as well as a recognized classic. Superhero fiction can rise to the level of fine art, just as fine art once sat at the level of pop comic style. The Long Halloween has a lot to say about family, loyalty, love, and justice, important themes for any age reader and themes which are masterfully communicated through fantastically written prose and gorgeously drawn art. It’s well worth reading, certainly as worthwhile as any other great literary achievement.