I read my first graphic novel Maus when I was student teaching in Marshalltown, Iowa during the 2003/04 school year. Maus is the story of Nazi Germany told through animal characters and it is a pretty profound read. It stuck with me for years and eventually opened up an entirely new genre I would never have explored without it…..soooo forced reading does have some benefits ;).
After realizing how raw and open I have been this spring, I thought it would help to take a little time away from the non-fiction world and delve in the fantasy lands and intricate worlds and relationships of graphic novels. My justification went, I would get some good reading done, up my book number (gotta keep up with Haddi) and enjoy some light, fun and easy reading….HA! I should have known better.
Ya see, I chose the Copperhead series. It’s a three volume series (as of right now), set in a “space cowboy” sort of universe with this incredible single mother sheriff protagonist. Upon reflection, it is not a good idea to pick up a graphic novel for a light read, because even though they are quick reads, have pictures and often delve into fantasy worlds, the issues and conflicts are rarely benign and more often than not they contain within their pages poignant commentaries on current societal sins. Copperhead is no exception and in the midst of the pages, characters and relationships I found the many and versatile political, social and economic issues of present day America. Issues of racism, sexism, classist and cultural misunderstandings. The legal and ethical grey areas where our personal desires for revenge and retributive justice are set aside in the name of the value of the actual individual before us. Copperhead asked me to reevaluate my own commitment to life and justice and what I am willing to compromise…and what I am not.
I originally picked up Copperhead about 2 years ago because it was advertised in a comic book shop as the “must read” for anyone who liked/loved/was obsessed with “Firefly.” I fit that bill and I continue to enjoy this series and look forward to the hopefully many volumes to come, but a “light read” it is not.
So after rereading Copperhead I read a newer graphic novel called Victor LaValle’s Destroyer. This story is of the utmost relevance and directly deals with racial inequity and state violence levied against black bodies all through a framework of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Once again in the art, language and story arch of a graphic novel the reader is asked to face reality head on. This book was heart-wrenching to read as you witnessed a mother’s love persevere, humanity reject itself and violence being used on all sides as the answer to the world’s problems.
What I loved about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the hard gut-wrenching questions of the nature of life and death, good and evil which both play out again in Victor LaValle’s Destroyer pointing them directly at the all to present and daily experience and witness of black bodies being controlled and destroyed by the state and thus by us all. This was not an easy graphic novel to read, in particular because in this one you find yourself more often than not as a ‘witness’ to unjust violence. With the art, the pictures, the author taps into that notion and experience of witness more freely than a traditional novelist and in this book it is that very witnessing, without action that is being called into question.
So to wrap this one up, I LOVE graphic novels. In case you were wondering. They have become a favorite because sometimes I don’t have the time, energy or desire to commit to 500 pages of social commentary, but these thoughtful, artful and poignant writers and artists of graphic novels cultivate an intense social commentary in just 120 pages that can be read in a single sitting. It is an art form and one I am deeply grateful student teaching and Maus introduced me to all those years ago.