Why Some Books Are Better As Graphic Novels
It's said that a picture's worth a thousand words, and I've never found that to be more true than in graphic novels. In just a few captioned panels, you can see an image more clearly than you might have with pages of description.
It makes me wonder what some of the more expository classics would be like if their writers had made graphic novels instead. Maybe some books are better as graphic novels.
Even more fascinating are the graphic memoirs---rather than write their story and have a section of glossy photos in the middle of the book (that, let's be honest, readers totally look at first before beginning the story), they choose to piece together the narrative in drawn segments. It's all about freedom. If the writer/artist draws the panels, they don't have to worry about not having photographs for that moment. It's possible to capture your life through your own visual perspective, rather than the perspective of whoever was taking the photos.
Reading Fun Home, a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel made me realize that some stories are definitely better told in graphic form.
Without giving spoilers, there are a couple of reasons why I think Fun Home works perfectly as a graphic memoir, but would be difficult as a regular memoir.
Chronological order might be the most common way of telling a story, but it's not always the way that serves the story best. Fun Home is about Alison's relationship with her father, who is a complex figure to say the least, and her own sexual awakening as a lesbian.
In Fun Home, Alison navigates her toddler-to-twenty years as they hinge around her father---the house he restored, his ill treatment of his children, his work as an English teacher and small town funeral home director, and his battles with his own complicated sexuality. You meet Alison as a toddler, as a pre-teen, as a teenager, and as a college student, though not necessarily in that order. Within one chapter you might see several flashbacks, all of which happen so naturally that slipping into the literary time warp feels like the only way the story could be told.
If this were a traditional memoir, Alison would have to somehow delineate that she's taking the reader backward in time, then forward again. Maybe tiny chapters with dates at the top, or a paragraph that explicitly stated that the coming piece was a memory, apart from the overarching narrative thread. But through Alison's art, we know what her cartoon character looks like at various ages, so that's all the context for flashback we need. It's so uncomplicated that it feels more seamless.
Notes on Historical Events
One of the beautiful things about memoir, whether traditional or graphic, is that it is inevitably being written with an informed perspective. Meaning, the writer is likely several years or decades removed from the experience and can look at it more objectively. With this "hindsight is 20/20 vision" perspective, the memoirist can see more of the outside forces at play in the past experience than could have been seen while the experience was still being lived.
For example, Alison notes what it was like to be in New York City, specifically Greenwich Village, for the Bicentennial in 1976, just a few short years after Stonewall and the beginning of the LGBT movement. She talks about Nixon resigning over Watergate the same summer she got her period. These are both things she mentions not having written about in her diary, which indicates it took a few years removal from the events for her to realize their historical impacts and how those forces were at work in her life, as well as her father's life.
Notes on Cultural Influences
For people who wholeheartedly love literature (or film, or fine art, or music, or sports) and consume it with a passion, it's almost impossible not to see your life as measured by the media you love. You remember where you were when you first heard that song, and now every time you hear it, it takes you back. You remember what lead you to read that book that changed your life and how you were different afterward.
Both of Alison's parents were English teachers and thus instilled a love of reading in their children. In Fun Home you learn about how her father was enraptured with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald in the years before marrying Alison's mom and how his reading of Proust and Camus may have heralded his death. You hear about how Alison's exploration of LGBT literature eased her into her newly discovered homosexuality.
While, of course, these works were being read at the time and clearly influenced Alison and her father, the years removed from the event make these facts easier to see. Alison deviates from the narrative fairly frequently to offer insight on literature's role in her and her father's lives and to offer commentary on the parallels between literature and lived experience. Much like the manipulation of time, this is best done via graphic rather than traditional memoir.
I've come to realize that in some ways graphic novels and memoirs offer more freedom than text alone. The combination of visual and textual narrative allows you to see the story in a more well-rounded way. Methods of telling a story that might seem scattered or require heavy editing to ensure it's done well in text can be done clearly and unobtrusively in a graphic fashion.
Don't believe me? Just read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.