As someone who has little reading experience with graphic novels or comic books, I sometimes feel like I missed a prerequisite for this class. The only ones I have ever read are Persepolis and V for Vendetta, both for other college classes. When I was trying to think of a blog topic, though, it dawned on me: I’ve read Captain Underpants. I don’t really remember any of it, but this got me thinking. Ever since I first learned how to, I have been an avid reader and pretty lucky in that my mom runs a home day care and therefore has found it useful to cultivate a pretty large home library of children’s picture books. So as I sat there thinking about all my favorite books as a kid, I got to wondering, why are they really different from comic books? Is the only important difference length; are children’s books to comic books as short stories are to novels?
That, at least, can be ruled out fairly easily: an important difference between children’s books and comics are illustrations. Children’s books tend to almost always follow traditional narrative form, letting the words describe the action and the setting, etc., rather than letting the images “speak” for themselves. This makes the pictures in children’s books more extraneous to the actual story line rather than actually illustrative. (For example, listen to this reading of the Caldecott Medal winning “Hey Al” by Arthur Yorinks without watching the video. Then go back and watch the video with Richard Egielski’s illustrations—though there are some differences from the book itself, the effect is mostly the same.) Their main purpose seems to be simply to keep small children interested and give them something for their eyes to focus on as they listen. In comics, however, the images tend to be much more important—they actually move the story along and contribute to it.
Consider, as another example, The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. By the third page and within the first minute of this video, the images and the words are telling two different stories. And I would like to emphasize the fact that they are both telling stories. Once readers get to page 5, for example, there are a series of 29 panels and four pages (1:39 to 2:45 of the video) almost completely without words that are still able to compel the story line.
It is also important to note that children’s books can use images to create a story, too. I doubt most people reading this have never heard of The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. The Snowman is entirely a picture book, i.e. it has no words at all yet it tells a complete, moving story and its intended audience is children. The picture-only story isn’t that uncommon for either children’s books or comic books, but usually in comics it is part of a larger whole, like one set of panels in a serial or a few pages in a book whereas children’s books tend to be wholly segregated: either the words tell the story and there are some bonus images for added enjoyment, or the pictures tell a story and don’t need words at all.
There are several other important aspects to the children’s books/comic books relationship, including but not limited to: the use of panels vs. pages, thought and speech bubbles vs. italics and quotations, the history of each genre, didacticism vs. “corruption,” and relative brevity. I intend to take a closer look at some of these in my future blogs, so if you’re interested look for those whenever it is a Justice League blogging week.