Welcome to “Recorded Conversations,” an occasional feature where all the Addison Recorder editors contribute their thoughts about a question, idea, or prompt. Everyone will chime in, and then we see where the conversation wanders. For today’s conversation, J. Michael Bestul looks forward to a few drinks over the Labor Day weekend, and wonders aloud what might be drinking. Prompt: You’re at a bar, restaurant, or pub that you’ve never been to before. The place has a pretty good drinks list, and on it, you notice ____________. And because this is one thing you always have to try when you’re at a new place, you order it.
Question: What is ____________, and why is it the libation you order?
Erm, Travis joined the conversation a little late, talking about comic books when we had moved onto adult beverages. Here’s the question he was actually answering:
Question: You’re teaching a class in popular culture, literature, or the like. As part of your curriculum, you need to incorporate one graphic novel or comic book series, and only one. Which one do you use, and why?
Speaking as one with a vague appreciation of the graphic novel (I have read them on several occasions, and do enjoy them, particularly those featuring excellent story telling), I find it difficult to really choose just one graphic novel to teach. That is not because of a wide variety of books that I find appropriate to educate as to the potential of graphic novel storytelling beyond Captain America, Batman, and the Hulk, as titles such as Persepolis, Watchmen, and Gaiman’s Sandman series immediately spring to mind. Rather, it is because I am only partially versed in the deeper history of comics beyond the Marvel and DC storylines.
Growing up, I seldom encountered graphic novels as I worked my way through the Fred Astaire canon, J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, and the complete history of baseball. I knew that there were groups called “X-Men” and that they weren’t likely to fight Batman. I knew Superman was from Smallville and the Hulk was a scientist with anger management issues. Other than that, I had nothing to suggest what comics could do to me.
Following my discovery of The Sandman in college (wherein I read the entire series over the course of a fevered 24 hours in my dorm’s common room), I pushed to discover what other titles I had missed out on during my nascent exploration of pop culture. This led a friend to introduce me to an odd title that seemed at first to be a mockery of one of the gravest and most serious tragedies in human history.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus is both intimate and broad sweeping, the story of both Spiegelman’s fractured relationship with his father and his father’s story of survival as a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust. It is harrowing, brutal, and one of the best works of fiction published during the 20th century. A Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s one of the few books that I’ve read in my life that has actually made me cry when reading it.
What makes it exceptional as a teaching tool is that it’s a graphic novel. Spiegelman uses a minimalist visual style that tells the story of the Holocaust from his father’s perspective, but also distorts the past in a way to serve the narrative and make it all the more powerful. By turning the Jewish figures of the story into mice, Nazis into cats, and Poles into pigs, Spiegelman uses anthropomorphism to convey the brutal details of Auschwitz and other horrifying elements of history in a way that both softens and sharpens their impact. At the same time, the biographical elements are distanced enough that we are no longer reading a biography about Spiegelman’s true and tragic life, but instead a crafted piece that has only a token air of reality to it but is never overwhelmed by either the historical past or the interpersonal present. Essentially, it is made more accessible by making it into a graphic novel. This is not a story that could be told by the written word alone; it requires the almost woodcutting-like imagery to better convey the nature of the themes brought forth in the book.
In summary, it’s really damn good. It’s also incredibly influential in terms of helping others to realize the full potential of what “comic books” can do. And so, because of both its quality and significance, it would easily find a place in my curriculum on popular culture and literature.
Wait, what was the question? Is it not July anymore?
NOTE: Travis was a wee bit late in uploading his response to the Recorded Conversations about comics books & graphic novels. Oh, well. Read the responses from the July conversation from -J., Andrew, and Bean.