Art for Art’s Sake: Is there meaning behind the art in graphic novels

I stumbled across an interesting thought the other day. Do graphic novels have to be subject to a specific type of art? I don’t think so. By definition a graphic novel is a narrative that uses sequential art for express the story. Therefore, the art itself has significance to the way the story is interpreted. The first thing I thought of was the novel Persepolis. I have always enjoyed this book for its content, and never explored it through the lens of an art critic. However, the more I think about it, the choice in art seems to be significant.

Persepolis is a coming of age story that focuses on an independent and progressive Iranian girl’s struggle to find her niche in the world. One of the main reasons I love this memoir is because it sheds light on a part of the world that many people have extremely biased and inaccurate understandings of. Marji’s tale shows the diversity, free spirit, and progressive nature of the people in Iran. Not all of its women are submissive, and not all Iranian men are Islamic extremists. The art is extremely simplistic, black and white cartoons. I don’t believe it is a coincidence black and white images are used to expose a world that is not so black and white.

I looked through the novels assigned in class and found an interesting mix of art styles. While I haven’t read all the graphic novels – and therefore, don’t know the context of the story in relationship to the text – I noticed the art style was very diverse and usually related to the story. For example, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is a story about superheroes. I know it’s about much more than that! But is relation to the art, the prevalence of masked vigilantes is very significant to the artistic style Watchmen is drawn in. Like many comic books, Watchmen uses Ben-Day dots, colored dots closely placed together or overlapping to convey a single color. Some other novels use this similar technique, such as The Sandman: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman. Since the story takes place in the DC Comics universe, it is appropriate to use the Ben-Day dots which are heavily associated with comic books. Similarly, The Unwritten follows the same pattern as The Sandman. Interestingly, in some sections of The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity images seem to be drawn on textured paper. I wish I could comment more on this, but I have not read the book yet.

Some of the other graphic novels, like Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, the art is very different. The black and white cartoonish panels display much more detail that the black and white images of Persepolis. There is a lot more detail and line work, which adds depth to Eisner’s pictures. What makes Eisner’s art so unique is the amount of contrast used. The detail combined with black and white images allows Eisner to literally show different characters in different light, which reflects the complex characters within his stories that often have both good and bad sides. One of the novels I have not read yet is The Underwater Welder. While flipping through the pages to examine the art, I noticed this author, Jeff Lemire, chose to use black and white images as well. However, Lemire’s art adds a new medium that I had not seen before. There is an element of gray in the art of The Underwater Welder created by what looks like watercolor brush strokes. Again, I haven’t read the story, but I do find it interesting that watercolors were used in a story about an underwater welder. Also, it will be interesting to see how the gray plays into the story. The art literally is filling in the gray area for the reader.

      Another interesting observation I made was with the cover of A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Madeleine L’Engle and illustrated by Hope Larson. The interesting thing about the cover of the book use Ben-Day dots, while the inside illustrations do not. A lot of graphic novels can have some kind of different art displayed on the cover of the novel. The Sandman‘s cover art is beautifully unique and nothing like the inside illustrations. However, the difference is A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel was already published as a children’s chapter book. I liked that fact that Larson used Ben-Day dots on the cover to make it stand out that this is the graphic novel, not the chapter book. There were a couple other graphic novels I will read later that I did not mention here. When I do I hope to find some signifigance in their artwork as well.

  3 comments for “Art for Art’s Sake: Is there meaning behind the art in graphic novels

  1. Mosty
    March 15, 2013 at 10:24 am

    It looks like the artist used inkwash in the Underwater Welder, which uses ink, but it is almost like watercolor in that you dilute the ink with water. I haven’t started reading it yet, but from the picture above, that’s what it looks like to me. I’ve already started reading Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, and I find the art and the story to be very disparate. The art in the book seems very child-friendly and simple, but the story is surprisingly dark, however this is appropriate for the story due to the fact that it is about a character from children’s novels. Persepolis, too, kind of threw me off when I started reading it, because the drawings are so simple and the story is so serious. However, I think you’re right about why she chose that style, is because of the black and white attitude the West tends to hold towards the Middle East, and how things over there really are not as black-and-white as people tend to think. I definitely agree that artistic choices have a lot of impact on how the story is told and on its meaning.

  2. April 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Interesting discussion of artistic techniques, and I’m curious about the dots to which you call attention. Are those really subject to the same sort of analysis as technique, when their existence is evident basically as an artifact of a color printing process?

    I mean, it’s not like Dave Gibbons is punching in each dot individually or that Jeff Lemire is painting each copy of his book by hand, so when these technical differences affect our interpretation of the text, to whom should we attribute those differences (interpretively)?

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