By Noor Adilah (17S06B)
This article is part of a series of genre and format reviews done in collaboration with Raffles Reviews, an Instagram page by Raffles Debate. Click here for more beautiful photos of Rafflesians with their favourite reads.
Comic books and graphic novels are generally under appreciated as works of literature, and their value as works of art is often not recognised. The nature of this medium, which combines both illustrations and text in the form of dialogue or narration is often dismissed by critics as something meant for children, due to the supposed “simplicity” of the genre. As such, comic books and graphic novels have long been considered as undeserving of formal analysis or serious reading. Despite this, comic book writers and illustrators have proven such critics wrong time and time again with a diverse range of comic books that have spanned generations and display a depth of perception and quality befitting the highest levels of literary and artistic merit. To prove this, Press presents a detailed guide of three comic books which demonstrates the diversity and quality of narratives and styles that can be achieved through this format.
Before beginning the article proper, the author would like to make some clarifications as to one of the terms she will be using in this article – graphic novel. Graphic novels, as harmless as they may seem, are a contentious text-type. Some content generators (for lack of a better term, since writer or illustrator are not quite suitable) do not even recognize it as a legitimate format. An important concern brought up by comic book creators foregrounds that the term graphic novel often just serves as a marketing ploy to sell normal comic books at higher prices, giving readers the impression that they are paying more for a “higher brow” illustrated book. The influential and highly reputable comics writer Alan Moore, who wrote popular comics like Marvelman and Watchmen, once famously said “it’s a marketing term that I never had any sympathy with. The problem is that graphic novel came to mean expensive comic book”. Daniel Raeburn, author of Vessels: A Love Story said calling a comic book a graphic novel is the “literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a sanitation engineer”.
While labelling a book as a graphic novel may be controversial today, the history behind the term graphic novel is distinct and has influenced many other book formats by setting a higher bar for the quality of comics-driven books. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God brought the term graphic novel to the public lexicon, using the word graphic novel to distinguish itself from the books created in the comic book industry by merit of its aesthetic and literary content. But perhaps this divide between comic books and graphic novels is no longer necessary given the sustained quality of comic books today.
For the purposes of this article, the author will use the terms interchangeably.
Two books of such a format that Raffles Debate has featured on its popular instagram page are Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, a fictional fantasy comic book and The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, a local graphic novel. The vast differences in both books highlight how volatile and flexible the comic book format can be in depicting complex stories in beautiful detail.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Nimona is an engaging, humorous and, ultimately, a highly lovable, character-driven book that focuses on three main characters depicted on the front cover: Sir Ambrosius Goldloin of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, the titular character Nimona and the supervillain Lord Ballister Blackheart.
Stevenson originally posted content for Nimona on Tumblr, where it gained a cult following. She then proceeded to publish individual comics for the overarching plot regularly on her blog for everyone to see. The printed-and-published hardcopy format like the one Shannon is holding in the photo above is a recent edition of an otherwise free and accessible comic book still available online. Webcomics like Nimona actively subvert the mainstream book industry by posting high-quality content online, increasing access and creating a direct pathway for interaction straight to the content generator with little channelling to third parties or publishers. In this regard, webcomics are perhaps paving the way to a new generation of books, where access is increased and an author’s autonomy is ensured.
This author admits her love for all three characters, who are charming, humorous and incredibly well developed through well-placed story arcs and crying/laughing-fit-inducing scenes.
As brilliant as Nimona is as a literary work, it is just as beautiful when judged for its aesthetic merits. Noelle Stevenson’s character designs are purposeful and measured, taking into account the characterisation and attitudes of each person. Stevenson’s minimalistic drawing style is also telling of the comic’s online roots. This comic book is a stellar example of the flexibility and accessibility of graphic novels, which can appeal to everyone, regardless of age or status.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew
The second featured comic, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew is a Singaporean favourite. It leads readers through Singapore’s history from 1954 until today, through the lens of an artist – the titular Charlie Chan Hock Chye. This controversial work explores themes of independence, merger, war and peace in stunning detail, with a focus on the place of the individual in a fledgling state. It also narrates the Singapore story through an atypical and unique lens.
The retelling of this Singapore story through the lens of Charlie Chan has been said to “[undermine] the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions” according to the NAC, which led to a controversial withdrawal of its publishing funds on the grounds that Sonny Liew had breached publishing guidelines. However, this author stands firmly on the stance that there is no One narrative of the Singapore story that is “correct”, and no institution has ownership over that Singular Singaporean Story. In fact, the book’s increased focus of the individual’s place in Singapore throughout the tumultuous years of our history shows that we all experience history differently – and the Singaporean public deserves to have access to all the different facets of our history to appreciate our nation.
Besides its merit as a piece of historical fiction that balances individual stories with a larger national narrative, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is also extremely aesthetically pleasing. More importantly, Liew uses the aesthetic elements of the graphic novel to show the chronological progression of Charlie Chan’s artistic development, from the tender age of 16 in 1954 to more current years. The earlier illustrations are simple and more cartoon-ish, with influences from newspaper comics or textbook illustrations, and later on in the book, Charlie Chan develops his own style that is unique but has clear influences in Chinese traditional art, as shown in the picture above.
Our Graphic Novel / Comic Book Pick – Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
Hobbesian attitudes understand the need for watchmen – moral and legal custodians who guard the order of our carefully constructed communities. These watchmen come in many forms and shapes. In our society, they may come as policemen, governments, and maybe in a parallel universe they may come in the form of costumed superheroes. Watchmen is set in the premise of an alternate universe that has been influenced by the actions of vigilante superheroes.
The title of the graphic novel comes from the popular question “Who watches the watchmen?”, a translation of the famous question posed by Roman satirist Juvenal “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”. This timeless quote poses the eternal question – if moral and legal custodians guard us, then who will guard them, and keep them in check? As such, this comic book foregrounds the necessity for the accountability of any party that has any authority over any facet of society.
Watchmen is an incisive jab at the popular belief that a skilled, perfect leader, or group of leaders, is the key to moral immortality, by criticizing how no unexamined authority can rule ultimate without undermining democracy. Accountability and transparency are the true traits of a good government, according to the narrative plot of Watchmen. Of course, the importance of this message is even further understandable when one acknowledges the context in which Watchmen was written, right after events like the Watergate scandal had tarnished the American people’s trust in their own government, where the press acted as an invaluable fourth estate that represented the people in investigating and questioning the Nixon administration.
The alternate America in which Watchmen takes place was once filled with superheroes who emerged from the 1940s to the 1960s, and influenced major events in America’s history, where the United States won the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal was never exposed. The comic book narrates how these same vigilante superheroes are outlawed in the coming days of World War 3 with the Soviet Union, while former superheroes are retired or work for the government.
This author thoroughly enjoyed reading Watchmen, as it actively challenged the romanticisation of superheroes, and actively comments on America’s political conflicts in stunning detail, using superhero characters to play out political possibilities. The book serves as a commentary on famous political figures like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon. A quote that has stuck with many fans of the series is a comment made by Alan Moore, writer of the book: “I reached a point doing Watchmen, when I was able to purge myself of my nostalgia for superhero characters, in general, and my interest in real human beings came to fore.”
In a way, reading Watchmen does not only purge romantic and childish notions of ultimate superheroes, but of figures of authority in general, and makes readers understand the importance of checks and balances against the government, the supposed “superheroes” of our countries which we trust with saving the day. This is currently relevant especially in the US, as policemen are not being held accountable for the murders of innocent people based on their race, ethnicity or gender. The free media plays the role of the watcher of the watchmen, in providing information about current affairs and acting as the fourth estate that questions, analyses and criticises the government’s actions.
Watchmen’s stunning visuals depart from DC Comic’s normal standard for illustrations, by focusing more on colour schemes and characterisation instead of the execution of action scenes. For example, one of the main characters, the Byronic anti-hero Rorschach, is easily identifiable by his constantly morphing inkblot facemask. This character design reflects his moral ambiguity and the psychological elements of his story arc.
To conclude, this author would like to recommend all 3 comic books to readers. They are largely variant but all endlessly engaging and beautiful, while skillfully carrying complicated narratives worthy of any literary prize with beautiful art that reflects the aesthetics of our era.