Friday, May 1, 2009

Panels and balloons: Graphic novels


The little sound effects above are what sometimes come to mind when people think of comic books: funny little drawings full of silly things.

The truth is, they are so much more than that. Before I start to explain what more there is to comics than the unadulterated joy of onomatopoeia, though, there's an important distinction to be made.

There are comic books, and then there are graphic novels. Superficially, there isn't much of a difference between the two. They both tell stories using images and text in linear sequences to portray events. In both, people's words are framed in speech balloons and, yes, sound effects may appear in funny-looking fonts.

Practically speaking, though, there's a big difference. While comic books are sort of like magazines, published on a regular schedule, they're usually fairly short (no more than a couple dozen pages), episodic in nature (they tell short stories that might fit into a bigger story, told over multiple issues), and bound cheaply with staples.

On the other hand, graphic novels are hybrids of comic books and regular books. They use the comic-book format to tell book-length stories. Sometimes they accomplish this as collections of comic books that have been issued over a period of months, then collected and bound into a single graphic novel. More often, they stand on their own as unique narratives that are executed in very creative fashions. These stories run the same gamut of fiction and non-fiction you see on our usual shelves; they aren't limited to superheroes.

Graphic novels have become pretty popular for libraries for this reason. The visual format can be incredibly appealing if done by a talented artist -- often, you will find a graphic novel that has almost no dialogue in it because the drawings tell the entire story on their own. They've also been mildly controversial at one point or another as people discover more and more that there are comic books in the library, and think the library should be spending that money on "real" books instead.

If you feel that way, bear in mind that Gallaudet is by no means the only library in the Consortium acquiring materials like this. Schools like Georgetown University, Catholic University, and American University are all acquiring graphic novels at a furious clip. Other schools like Duke University are not only acquiring graphic novels, but also using the format in new and fascinating ways.

All matters of opinion aside, though, the Library has a few graphic novels, although that number is slowly growing. Our offerings range from visual adaptations of text-based novels to totally original works (i.e., stories that exist only in graphic-novel form), passing through what are known as "spandex comics" -- collections of superhero comics (we have X-Men, for example). Here's a list of the highlights of our collection, with short summaries and links to their permanent records in ALADIN. The titles with a star (*) are also on display in the Library, in front of the West entrance (toward Peet Hall).
  • Discworld Graphic Novels*
    • The two very first Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett are adapted into graphic-novel form. Terrific if you're into humorous fantasy with a dash of scathing social satire.
  • Stuff of Life*
    • This is a great example of how the graphic-novel format isn't used only for fiction -- Stuff of Life is a visual guide to the workings of DNA and genetics.
  • Watchmen
    • Considered the precursor of our current boom in the graphic-novel format, Watchmen explores an alternate timeline where Nixon never stops being President and, instead of superheroes, ordinary people dress up in funny costumes. Sounds simple, but the book uses the basic premise to examine issues like vigilantism, government control, and the sanctity of human life. Dark, violent, and twisted, this isn't your 12-year-old brother's rag.
  • Maus I & II
    • Maus has been mentioned on this blog before; it is widely considered one of the best visual portrayals of the horrors of World War II and the life of a Jewish family during the Holocaust.
  • Persepolis; Persepolis 2*
    • Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian woman who left Iran as a young girl after the fall of the Shah, tells her life story in a style that is both winsome and stark.
  • Prince of Persia*
    • Based on the video game, this book tells the story of a young prince, his siblings, and a prophecy in the desert that would change everything.
  • Sandman* (currently Vols. 1-4)
    • Possibly one of the most popular graphic-novel series of all time, the Sandman books by Neil Gaiman (this year's Newbery Award winner for The Graveyard Book) are tough to describe without sounding pretty silly. They chronicle the life of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and incorporate a vast cast of characters that are, at the same time, mythical, imaginary, and based in reality.
  • The Cartoon History of the Modern World: Part I: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution
    • This is basically a history-book-length graphic novel that tells the history of what is generally considered the "modern world," starting from the 15th-century discovery of the New World, in a narrative format. It's one of several graphic novels in the same vein, covering the histories of the Universe and American foreign policy, among other things.
  • The Hobbit*
    • This is an adaptation of JRR Tolkien's classic novel, a sort of prequel to the Lord of the Rings epic.
  • Manga Shakespeare*
  • Graphic Forensic Science*
    • This series of graphic novels covers important aspects of forensic investigation, including autopsies and corpses.
  • Emma*
    • A manga adaptation of the classic Austen novel, Emma.
  • Mom's Cancer*
    • The story of an artist son and his cancer-suffering mother -- at times humorous, at times touching, at all times very well-done -- this book provides an honest perspective on the effect of serious illness on a family.
  • Road to Perdition*
    • This is the classic Depression-era gangster mystery graphic novel on which the Tom Hanks movie was based.
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
    • This is one of the foremost discussions of the format currently in existence. Scott McCloud, author of Zot!, uses his recognizable, appealing style to portray all the different elements that go into a comic book, including panel shape and placement, text, and how to progress action in order to play with the reader's sense of time. This book is absolutely essential to understanding how graphic novels work!
The graphic novels in the list above are by no means the only ones we have. They're always worth checking out. Many of these books can be found in the vicinity of call number 741.5 in the General Stacks downstairs, although a lot of the more subject-specific stuff (like Stuff of Life or Graphic Forensic Science) are located with their subjects. In general, our graphic novels are spread fairly thinly throughout the Library but are at their greatest density in 741.5.

That will just about do away with this week. Next week, we'll offer up some recommendations for good summer reading!

Question of the Week
I'm trying to find a videotape or DVD that has something to do with ASL and treasures. How do I search for treasures without bringing up a bunch of books about pirates?
That's a very good question, and it's one that also applies to this week's post about graphic novels. What you're really asking is: How do I search for something in a specific format?

First, a word about Librarianese. Sometimes librarians use words that don't necessarily mean exactly what you've always understood them to mean or actually mean them in more specific ways than you're used to (like "record") -- I call that "Librarianese." The word format is an example of Librarianese; we use the word to refer to what the the thing actually is and how it conveys the information it contains. "Book" is a format; so is "VHS" and even, in some special libraries, "sculpture" or "painting."

The Library collection encompasses several different formats: books, periodicals, videorecordings (both VHS and DVD), microforms (both microfilm and microfiche), electronic (available through the Internet, like our impressive list of e-book offerings), and media (CD-ROMs, games, and other stuff that can't be classified as any of the other formats). If the item you want isn't a book, you can usually see the format in brackets in the link to the item, like this:

So what do you do when you don't want a book? There's a way to search in ALADIN that will help. It's called "Keyword (AND, OR, NOT)." You'll find it in the "By:" field when you're searching in ALADIN. When you select that, you can search for more than one thing at the same time, using AND, OR, or NOT between the keywords you use. Here's how each works:
  • AND: Requires that all the results use the words on both sides of "AND" (like "tropic thunder" AND videorecording if you want to find the movie)
  • OR: At least ONE of the words on either side of "OR" is acceptable (like "tropic thunder" AND (videorecording OR media) if you know you want something called Tropic Thunder, but you're not sure if it's listed as a videorecording)
  • NOT: Requires that the next word after "NOT" isn't included in the search (like "tropic thunder" NOT microform if you're curious about whether or not there are any other relevant items in the collection that doesn't require fiddling with a microform reader)
I'm not going to go into the full complexities of searching with this method -- because it can be complex -- but if you know the word for the kind of thing you want, you can use this search strategy with that word and the topic you're looking for and find what you need much more easily.

Terms that may work include the list I gave you above, as well as things like "dictionary," "picture book," annnnnd ... "graphic novel"! Bet you were wondering what all this had to do with Watchmen.

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