“Comics” aren't always funny.
It is a simple enough message, but one that writer/artist Josh Neufeld had to drive home for one of the people he sought to profile in his graphic novel A.D., which deals with the aftermath of post-Katrina New Orleans, and is drawn from his own experience as a relief worker following the catastrophe. A.D. follows a half-dozen people as they struggle to rebuild their lives after the flood, yet one woman was reluctant to be featured in the story, Neufeld explained to a damp crowd gathered in the rain (perhaps apropos given the subject matter) outside at the International Stage of the Brooklyn Book Festival for the panel “The International Graphic Novel: Drawing from Life”, because his would-be subject had always equated comics with the amusing anecdotes that appear in the Sunday papers and didn't want her own tragic flood story to become the source of comedy.
It is a misconception that seems to plague the graphic novel format with those unfamiliar with the genre – that “comics” can only be played for laughs and cannot be used to tell a serious story; although Neufeld and his fellow panelists, Nick Abadzis (author of Laika) and Jessica Abel (author of La Perdida), each made a strong case for the narrative strength of the genre. Abadzis' Laika chronicles the story of the stray Russian dog who became the first living creature in space, while Abel's La Perdida explores the seedy side of modern-day Mexico City through the experiences of the novel's heroine. Taken as a set, the three authors tales run the gamut from wholly fictional (La Perdida), to a fictionalized account of a real event based on first-person experiences (A.D.), to a fictionalized, speculative account of an historic event (Laika).
One point raised by the authors was their belief that the graphic novel provides the reader with a more “intimate” experience than their printed-word counterparts, where in a printed-word novel it is left to the reader's imagination to conjure an image of a given character, in a graphic novel that character is rendered in ink; the protagonist literally looks up at you from the page (or the screen in this e-book age). This intimacy can lead to some amusing misconceptions; Abel said that a number of people, including some well-associated with the graphic novel genre, assumed that La Perdida was an autobiographical story and that the events which befall the heroine actually happened to her in real life; she had to assure people that the story was in fact made up.
Another interesting point made by the panel involved the writer's eye in crafting a graphic story. While it is tempting when speaking of graphic non-fiction to draw a comparison between graphic novels and photojournalism, it is though a flawed assumption since a photograph captures everything in front of the camera lens; by comparison, the artist starts with a blank sheet when crafting a graphic story. As Abadzis said, it is up to the artist to decide what they want to add to the scene, and that the artist “makes a decision on every element that they include.” Abel added that with graphic novels “you know there's a hand and a mind there” in crafting the visual elements, a realization that helps to add to the “intimacy” of the graphic novel.
Research also plays a large part in the creation of a graphic story. Abel said that her research for La Perdida included drafting a chart that detailed every item that would appear on the shelves in her heroine's room, since as stated before, a conscious decision had to be made on every item that would eventually appear in the frame. For Abadzis, a trip to Moscow provided a wealth of details that would enrich the first draft of Laika that he had written in London. Since the main character of his story is a dog, he had to create several characters who interacted with Laika to tell her story. His research led him to create a woman he called Yelena, since he conjectured that someone would have served as Laika's caretaker before her trip into space. After Laika was published, Abadzis received a photograph of a woman who not only served the same role as the “Yelena” he had created, but who amazingly looked like the character he had drawn. Neufeld, meanwhile, posted chapters of A.D. online as he wrote them and received feedback from people who had lived through Katrina, providing him with commentary and details that he used to refine the story – a process that perhaps points to the future development of the non-fiction genre in both the written and graphic formats.
“International Graphic Novel: Drawing from Life” provided some valuable insights into a genre that while growing in popularity is still misunderstood by many in the reading public. However, it is difficult to understand why the organizers at the Brooklyn Book Festival did not include some way for the artists to present images of their works to the crowd, especially since this was a panel discussion about a genre which by it's very nature is visual? Writers and poets appearing in other panel discussions could (and many did) read excerpts of their works to the audience, the artists on “Drawing for Life” were left with trying to give brief descriptions of sometimes richly-drawn scenes; providing a way to actually display these scenes would have made a good discussion even more rewarding.