My Problem With Graphic Novels (Part 2 of 2)

The following is part two of a two-part piece on graphic novels. It contains spoilers for several graphic novel series… serieses… whatever. The most recent one is Buffy Season 8, but many older ones are included as well. Read at your own risk.


Death reflects upon the death of Dream. Click to enlarge.

Now, let’s move on from action to emotional turmoil. While I will say that many artists are more than capable of giving us a character’s full emotional range via posture and facial expression, somehow I just don’t get the same emotional impact when I read it in a graphic novel as when I see it on TV or read it in a book. In fact, the only time I was truly moved by something I read in a graphic novel was in The Wake, the tenth and final collection of the original Vertigo run of Sandman. In it*, we hear Dream’s siblings pay tribute to him. Perhaps because I’ve always loved Death**, when she talked about Dream I actually was brought nearly to tears.

Compare that to other graphic novels I’ve read:

  • V for Vendetta — I wasn’t really moved by Valerie’s story. Maybe because I’d already seen it done in the film (which I saw first). But I know I was supposed to be touched by it, and even now when I see certain things on TV or read them in books I’m again touched by them. It just didn’t compute.
  • Watchmen — There’s a lot of sadness and betrayal in these books, and I think I was really supposed to feel for Dr. Manhattan when he retreats to Mars to figure out things between himself and Laurie. Didn’t happen.
  • Star Trek TNG: The Worst of Both Worlds — I’ll admit that I read this when I was young and stupid, but I totally missed out on all the painful subplots between Data and Geordi, and all the stuff that went on with O’Brien.
  • Star Trek: Mirror Universe — Published just after Star Trek III was released, these books are an alternate to the whole thing with the whales. I will say that I enjoyed the action sequences, and definitely felt the moment of triumph as Kirk takes the Excelsior from Styles, but the scene where Kirk reunites with Mirror-David just didn’t resonate.

That whole sequence is leading me up to what I really wanted to talk about, and here’s where the spoilers come in.

The death of Giles. (Click to enlarge.)

In issue 39 of Buffy Season 8, Angel kills Giles.

I remember reading about this — perhaps on IO9; I checked their archives but couldn’t find the original article — and I believe I saw some things about how unceremoniously it was done. Now, I know that Whedon is all about the killing of characters with no warning, but there’s a big difference between “I am a leaf on the wind” and Anya getting chopped in half and left for dead. I’m not saying that I disagree with the writing choice, or with Whedon for killing the character, but I have issue with the way it was done.

I already rewrote one of the scenes from Season 8 in text, and I’m not going to rewrite this one too, but let’s imagine if this had happened on screen. In fact, let’s contrast it with another famous Buffy death: Tara’s. With Tara’s death, we had reaction, we had plot movement (Willow becomes Dark Willow), we had a moment for them to be together, one last time. Very visual and visceral, very much a film thing. In the comic, Angel — possessed by the villain/universe spirit called Twilight — simply kills Giles. Now, right afterward, Buffy does kick him through a wall or something, but I just didn’t get the same emotional impact as I have with other big deaths — Data in Nemesis, Dax in Deep Space Nine, George in Grey’s Anatomy, Bobby in Supernatural***. To me it just didn’t seem real.

Some of that might come from what’s been hammered into my head about canon vs non-canon for so long: for years, stuff in comics and books hasn’t really been considered canon when held up alongside television or film properties. Star Trek specifically comes to mind. But Season 8 is canon, and this particular series of issues was written by Joss Whedon — the equivalent of Shonda Rhimes penning a 300-page Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice novel and releasing it in the summer between seasons. When Giles died, it counted.

But in my head, it wasn’t the same.

Lest you think I’m only about the Vampire Slayers****, I also recently read the first volume of Kick-Ass. Comparing the death scenes of Big Daddy in film and comic form, I have to side with the film yet again.

Now, let me say this: I have been moved by things happening in comics, but only in one medium. That medium is webcomics. Could it be because I only knew the characters in that format? Could I be so thrilled that Ozy’s dad and Millie’s mom finally got together because I’d spent years with these characters? Could I be so devastated by Faye’s death in Something Positive that even rereading the “Just Today” strips still makes me cry because, for years before, I’d gotten to know them as comic characters?

Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t really know.

But I do know this: I have a problem with graphic novels. Especially ones that are alongside other forms of media, as tie-ins or sequels, but even if there isn’t a tie-in (when I first read Watchmen, the film wasn’t even in production) a lot of the emotional nuance still misses me completely. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to use my imagination as much (since there’s visual art to compensate for that). Maybe it’s because I expect to see the characters in a different light and it just doesn’t seem real to me when I experience them in graphic novel form. Or, hell, maybe I’m just one of those people who doesn’t get the same satisfaction out of comics that I do out of video, audio, or straight-up textual media.

This doesn't even come CLOSE to what I imagined when I read the novelization of Superman's death.

I’m not saying “don’t read comics”; I think they have a lot to offer. But for someone like me, someone for whom the words are the most important thing, I’d rather skip them and wait until they’re novelized. I got so much more out of The Death and Life of Superman when it was novelized by Roger Stern than I ever would have out of reading it in serialized issue format, or even as a graphic novel. Comics just don’t engage my brain enough, because they give me too much information. They show me the pictures, instead of letting me create them myself.

And, really, that’s what I want.


* I haven’t read this one in a while, so I’m going on memory. Forgive my lapses.

** She sits on my desk. She’s always the last to be packed up and the first to be set out whenever I get a new job. Here she is.

*** As awesome as Bobby’s final word was — “Idjits!” — do we have to see it in every single “Then” segment before the show starts? Talk about over-trading on your emotional moments…

**** Okay, okay, I’ve been on a Buffy kick lately, I admit it. But it’s like a person who’s never bothered to try pork suddenly discovering the existence of bacon — even six months later, you’re still ecstatic over the awesomeness of its every aspect. Yeah, that’s right, I just compared Buffy the Vampire Slayer to bacon. Deal with it.