Drawing the unsayable
Comic strips are most often associated with light-hearted, silly stories or action-packed superhero tales. Not for nothing were they known as 'the funnies'. Now, however, a host of new graphic novels are dealing with the saddest and most complex of emotions, from the sudden, unexpected death of a baby in Nicola Streeten's memoir Billy, Me and You to the long, protracted loss of a parent to Alzheimer's disease in Sarah Leavitt's Tangles.
Leavitt is a Canadian author and illustrator and Tangles tells the story of her mother's descent into dementia at the age of 52. Leavitt kept a diary during her mother's illness, including drawings, which gave her the idea to write her memoir in graphic-novel form. Streeten is an English illustrator who started drawing as a way of distracting herself after her two-year-old son, Billy, died following heart surgery.
I read each book in one sitting, and was sideswiped each time by the unexpected emotional weight they both carried. The drawing in both books is deceptively simple, with Streeten's wobbly line-drawings and Leavitt's bold use of light and shade belying the complexity of the stories and the powerful impact they have on the reader.
The uncertainty of some of the drawing adds an extra layer of fragility to the story, as if you feel the drawing itself is affected by the emotions at play. Both books are told in black and white, which also keeps them stark and bleak.
I've never been a graphic novel aficionado, reading only those more famous ones like Neil Gaiman's Sandman series or ones that accidentally crossed my path, but there are many advantages to writing about serious topics in this form.
The short amount of text used in the graphic novel form does not limit the ability to express rich and complicated narratives. Each frame has a headline, a handful of words that give you the basic story, while the images fill up the subtleties, colouring in the many shades in the gaps between the black and white text.
It's remarkable how much unsayable emotion can be expressed through the images of these books: for example, the image of Streeten floating in a fragile bubble after the death of her son illustrating her delicate denial, or Leavitt drawn as a silhouette trapped in a dense black box to express the loneliness and isolation she feels.
It might take much more than a couple of square inches to express these feelings in prose. After reading Joan Didion's latest memoir, Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter, I couldn't say that one form was more emotionally worthwhile than the other. They're different of course, but none fell short of expressing itself because of the form it chose.
Streeten adds an extra layer to her book by incorporating real pictures of her late son, Billy, as background layers in her drawings. So, a blown-up picture of Billy's face hangs eerily behind a cartoon Streeten when she awakes from a nightmare about him and a photo of Billy's assorted belongings (including his death certificate) starkly wipe out any fuzziness that the comic drawings might have conveyed about the whole experience.
The question of appropriateness of form has come up regarding both of these books -- is it trivialising to talk about the death of a child or a parent in comic-book form? Anyone reading these books could not answer yes. In fact they prove that graphic novels are becoming a more accepted mainstream art form whose remit has moved from mere entertainment to the expression of universal experiences.
Neither story jarred because of its chosen format; in fact, the reader is left in no doubt as to the power of the form to handle these difficult topics and their accompanying tangled emotions.
There's no denying graphic novels have arrived -- they've been an incredibly powerful art form for nearly 100 years -- but these two women show that superheroes can exist in more forms than spandex and eye masks.