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Between two panels

Comics’ place in pop culture.


SWALLOW ME WHOLE: Powell's work finds critical success.
  • SWALLOW ME WHOLE: Powell's work finds critical success.

The graphic novel is having its day in the sun. Or is it? The commercial success of recent works like Brian K. Vaughn's “Y: The Last Man” and movie adaptations of long-time super hero favorites is an encouraging sign for comic book fans who once thought they had to hide their copies of Spiderman in the basement lest someone think their tastes infantile, their hobby childish. Critical acclaim has reached the medium's heroes like Harvey Pekar, Daniel Clowes and R. Crumb, but something is still amiss.

Two weeks ago the film adaptation of one of the most highly regarded graphic novels ever, “Watchmen,” was a box office hit. Critically, however, the film has not fared as well and a disappointing second week only exacerbated the negative criticism.

Noel Murray is a film and music critic for The Onion A.V. Club. He is based in Conway and at one time taught a class on comics for the Honors College at the University of Central Arkansas. He says comics are becoming part of the cultural conversation, but there's still a push-back from some critics.

 “But that's coming from people who just don't have any interest in comics and I don't blame them,” Murray says. “There are certain media forms that I'm not wild about, like poetry. I don't read it, I don't really get it and I don't understand it, but I don't think that everybody who likes poetry is an idiot.”

Murray says part of the problem is that people are reluctant to take comics seriously because they haven't seen really good work in the medium and the old super hero stereotypes persist. He is quick to point out, though, that while some critics or the public may not swoon over the latest graphic novel, it is becoming more and more common to see these types of works on top-ten book lists.

One such book is “Swallow Me Whole,” by North Little Rock native Nate Powell. Powell's graphic novel was recently nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It's the first graphic novel nominated for the award since Art Spiegelman's “Maus,” a landmark work which earned Spiegelman a Pulitzer Prize.

“Swallow Me Whole” follows two teenaged siblings — one with schizophrenia, one with obsessive-compulsive disorder — throughout their daily lives, their struggles at school and at home. It's a compelling story and visually engaging. One of the reasons the book has been such a critical success is Powell's ability to intertwine story and art.

“What I like about Nate's work is he can actually convey an idea or an emotion just from the way the page is laid out,” Murray says.

Powell agrees that how something is drawn is an excellent way to communicate a feeling, but, he says, it's not always conscious.

“There's definitely a certain visual language I use to communicate certain things, whether it's the way I use lines, or the lettering, the division of the panels,” Powell says. “There are things that you can do with comics that you just can't do with anything else.”

And therein lies the medium's strength. Murray says that as long as talented artists like Powell continue to create good work, the support and respect for graphic novels will eventually follow.

“There is something particular about the way you put pictures and words together to convey an idea that is an art form,” Murray says. “And it's an art form unlike writing and unlike drawing. It's a combination of two things. If people are going to think about comics as art, that's what they should consider. There is an art form to how these things are done and that should be recognized.”

Powell thinks the success of comics will depend on time — time for the medium to grow, and for its critics to catch up.

“But more than that, it's going to take comics themselves retaining a community of readers, reviewers, artists and writers,” Powell says. “And that community is going to have to retain its identity, keep people interested and keep people involved.”




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