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Graphic novels; reading, but in a different way

A comic-panel version of Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' is but one particularly choice example of the medium's power.

September 04, 2009|Julia Keller | Julia Keller is cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune.

The reader was outraged. The thrust of her question: How dare you?

Her contempt arose in response to a column I wrote praising certain graphic novels. And she was not alone in her seething censure. I heard from several other readers as well, wondering why I had allowed myself to be seduced by the easy enchantments of comic books. Frankly, they expected better of me -- given my doctoral degree in English literature and my well-known and oft-alluded-to affinity for dense, difficult, high-minded novels by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad.

How had I allowed myself to be plucked from the stately, dignified ivory tower and lured down into the publishing world's damp basement, a place of shag carpet, flea-market furniture and flea-bitten ideas, X-Men posters on the wall, empty pop cans underfoot and stacks upon stacks of comic books? Just what did I have to say for myself?

I understood the umbrage. Still do, in fact, even though I'm about to compound my sin and error by praising a graphic novel published last month by Hill & Wang. A new adaptation of Ray Bradbury's classic work "Fahrenheit 451" (1953), with a fascinating and challenging new introduction by the author, is a vivid reminder of the special power of a graphic novel, of the genre's ability to do things that words alone can't.

Believe me, I often question my affection for graphic novels. I loved Superman as a kid, but when it comes to comics, we're not in Kansas anymore. Graphic novels have become terrifically popular, thanks to fiercely imaginative practitioners such as Neil Gaiman, as well as to a growing body of sophisticated theoretical work on the genre by astute writers such as Scott McCloud and Douglas Wolk.

Indeed, I find myself wishing graphic novels weren't so hip; their popularity has made me question my own motives. Am I just trying to sound cool? Is an affection for graphic novels by anyone over 25 simply the literary equivalent of buying a sports car or getting a face-lift?

The new graphic version of "Fahrenheit 451" has helped sort out the contents of my soul. And I'm happy to report that I'm in the clear. I am quite certain that I'd be trumpeting the virtues of this work even if graphic novels weren't on everybody's hot list, even if a graphic novel weren't as trendy an accessory as an Obama campaign button.

"What you have before you now," Bradbury writes in the introduction, "is a further rejuvenation of a book that was once a short novel that was once a short story that was once a walk around the block, a rising up in a graveyard, and a final fall of the House of Usher."

What the Waukegan, Ill., native is getting at, of course, is art's protean quality, those quicksilver properties that keep it young -- and not in the sports-car, plastic-surgery sense of the word "young." Some stories captivate us, generation after generation, because they're great stories, not because they happen to show up in a particular binding. They don't grow old because they don't stand still long enough to age. They're constantly in motion: dancing, shifting, darting, remaking themselves to rhyme with changes in society.

Faber, a character in "Fahrenheit 451," puts it this way: "It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in the books. . . . Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. . . . The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."

Most people know the simple, harrowing story of "Fahrenheit 451," the tale of how a future government requires books to be burned routinely, until a brave firefighter begins to question the practice.

If you know the novel, you'll still be thrilled by Tim Hamilton's artwork in this new version, which combines a comic-book clarity -- the panels are simple and straightforward, without the distraction of a lot of visual razzmatazz -- with a deep, humane rendering of the novel's theme.

My reason for enjoying graphic novels, I must confess, is not nearly so grand. The truth is that too many years as a book critic have threatened to turn me into a reading machine. I read too fast. I mow down rows of type like a scythe murdering a field. With a graphic novel, however, I'm forced to slow down. I can't rush. I can't go hell-for-leather across the page. I have to consider both the images and the words. I have to linger. I have to let things sink in. I have to learn all over again how to savor.

Some of my anti-comics correspondents claim that reading a graphic novel is not really "reading" at all. They're right. It's something else again. In the case of "Fahrenheit 451," it's more like a life-changing immersion in ideas, words, echoes, symbols, characters, lines, colors, nightmares -- and finally, daybreak.

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