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My Problem With Graphic Novels (Part 1 of 2)

The following is part one 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.


The cover for the Star Trek: Mirror Universe graphic novel.

I have a problem with graphic novels.

When I was a kid, I read a lot of comics — some superhero stuff, some Archie stuff, whatever looked cool at the comic shop, and of course a bit of Star Trek because, you know, it’s me. Later, as comics started to cost more and more*, I got out of the habit of reading them. I’d pick up an occasional collection, such as the Star Trek Mirror Universe saga, or I’d get a multi-issue run such as “The Worst of Both Worlds”, but for the most part… no more comics for me. I was too busy spending my pocket money on books.

I preferred books. Books were $6 (for a mass-market paperback), and they had hundreds of pages, and if there were no pictures… well… that was fine with me, because I could use my imagination. I could fill in the visual blanks using cover images and my own experiences**. And books took longer to read, too — a 350-page novel would last me a week or two, whereas a 32-page comic book took all of fifteen minutes to read.

Now, a lot of my friends who are comic readers say it’s not just about the story. They tell me the art is important. And yeah, they’re right, the art is important. But not to me.

Let me explain.

I'm specifically referring to the top-right panel. (Click to enlarge.)

When I read a graphic novel, I rarely notice the nuances of the artwork. I’m far more interested in reading the story and finding out what happens next. Often that does happen via artwork, especially in sequences void of dialogue or narration. But for the most part, there’s text. As a short-story/novella writer, what I care about is the storyline. While I totally appreciate great artwork, if it’s just there as a reaction shot, I’m less appreciative.

Let’s take a panel from “Twilight, Part 1”***, issue 32 of Buffy Season 8, written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Georges Jeanty, Andy Owens, and Michelle Madsen****. Specifically, the panel that references the iconic scene in Superman where Lois says “You’ve got me? But who’s got you?” At this point in the story, Buffy has gained superpowers and she and Xander are trying to figure out just how powerful she is. At the bottom of a cliff in Tibet, Buffy throws Xander into the air as he calls back to that line, then zips to the top of the cliff to catch him. The panel itself depicts the cliff, a temple at the top where Oz lives, and Xander in the sky with “YOOOOOOoooooooooou?!” breaking vertically out of his word bubble.

Yeah. Really.

Maybe that sort of thing works for some people, but for me it was just silly. For me, I might have better appreciated something like this:

Without warning, Xander jumped into Buffy’s arms. He recognized the mischievous look in her eye and, honestly, it worried him a little bit.

More than a little bit.

“What are you doing?” she asked him, smiling.

Xander didn’t really like the smile — he had a sinking feeling she was going to do something Slayer-like. But he’d committed to the part, and he had to say the line now. “You’ve got me?” he quoted. “Then who’s got you–!”

The last word was a howl as Buffy flung him into the air. He watched the cliff go past, then Oz’s temple — was someone waving at him? — then the treetops, and then he was more stories up than he’d care to count.

As his ascent slowed, something from Geometry class popped into the back of Xander’s mind. Something about parabolas.

He stopped rising.

He started falling.

Well, he thought, at this point, screaming will do me absolutely no good.

He screamed anyway.

The ground was looking awfully close.

And so was Buffy. Who caught him easily in her arms, bounced a little, and smiled. “Hat trick,” she said.

Now, to me that’s got far more impact than actually seeing it happen on the page. Maybe if Season 8 had been televised, and they’d done this on screen, I would’ve appreciated the visual impact, but to my mind action sequences really don’t work in comic form. Plus they have all those Adam West-era Batman sound effects. Like my personal favorite, KPOK!, which some Klingon somewhere will someday read and be pretty ticked off about the misuse of his name.

Admittedly, writing action sequences can be tough; I’ve struggled with fight scenes from time to time — I recently wrote one about two martial artists trying to see who’s better, and I inevitably found myself getting sucked into the witty dialogue at the expense of the ass-kicking — but they can be done well. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s latest Anita novel, Hit List (click the link for my review), I mentioned that the action sequences were well-written and well-paced. Sean McMullen pulls it off admirably in the battle sequences in his Moonworlds saga. And of course we’ve heard it on the various Escape Artists casts — anyone remember the squid combat of Ferrett Steinmetz’s “As Below, So Above”? But when you’re writing an action sequence, you only have to concentrate on transcribing what you see in your mind. When you’re writing the action sequence in a graphic novel (or comic), you have to pick specific points in the action to depict.

I don’t want to see specific points. I want to see the whole thing. And, for me, comics just can’t pull it off.

A battle between the Rebels and the Death Star. Even in 1977, it looked better on film.

Plus, action sequences in comics are sometimes… well… boring. Who needs to see two or three pages of your main characters fighting each other? There’s no story there. There’s no real advancement of the plot. Maybe there’s some “scuffling for the superweapon-of-doom” that you might also see on TV when the good guy kicks the bad guy’s gun away but then has to get to it in order to kill the bad guy… but otherwise, to me it’s just meh. If I’m watching a fight scene on TV or in a movie, it’s maybe two minutes of moves before the plot moves along and someone wins. Occasionally it goes longer — especially if it’s a Boss Fight, or we’re seeing a space battle. But jeez… compared to the video version of a space battle, even if you’re only watching it on a four-inch phone screen, a comic just can’t stand up to that kind of action. You can just do so much more.

I realize it’s a limitation of the medium, one that the artists and writers work valiantly to overcome, but really… there’s a lot more to Kirk blasting the Reliant than a bright orange line and the words ZZZZZAP!!! in bold, colorful letters somewhere on the panel.


In the second part of this article, I will move from action sequences and general discussion about art to the way comics make me feel… or don’t.


* I picked up some older comics to read on my iPad, and all the covers say $2.99. That’s for a 32-page book. My friend Chrome, who reads a lot more comics than I do, says prices these days are still the same, but that some books go up to $4.99. Too rich for my blood.

** Someone remind me later to write an article about how we perceive fictional characters we’ve never seen before. I’m on a roll right now and can’t stop to make notes.

*** The episode is rather-cleverly subtitled “Buffy Has F#©$ing Superpowers”. It’s one of the best issues in the entire run of the comic.

**** Letterers: Richard Starkings and Albert Deschesne. Never let it be said that I don’t credit everyone.

Book Review: “Snuff” by Terry Pratchett

The following review contains spoilers for any number of previous Discworld novels.


Every cop show has an obligatory “get stuck doing cop stuff while on vacation”. This apparently happens on the Discworld as well, because, in Terry Pratchett’s latest novel, Snuff, Commander Sir Duke Blackboard Monitor Samuel Vimes goes on vacation and ends up uncovering a pretty huge crime.

Snuff occurs about three years after Thud, the last City Watch-centric novel. Vimes’s son Sam (referred to herein as “Young Sam”, as per the book) is now six years old and, like all six-year-olds, is obsessed with poo. A trip to the Ramkin (Vimes’s wife comes from an absurdly rich family) estate, which is in the general vicinity of Quirm (think Paris), should afford Vimes and Lady Sybil a nice vacation, and will also give Young Sam the opportunity to examine many new varieties of poo. Also joining them is Willikins, Vimes’s personal butler/batman, who we’ve learned from previous books is not quite as pressed and proper as one might think.

The first third of the book is, in my opinion, the best of it. There’s a lot of rather typical Vimes-out-of-water moments, a lot of funny stuff with Young Sam and poo, and some good lines for Willikins as he takes on the role of Mr. Exposition (Willikins has been with the Ramkin family for many years). But, as is wont to happen with policeman-on-vacation stories, Vimes stumbles onto several crimes, including a murder, smuggling, and slavery. Without the support of any Watchmen from back in Ankh-Morpork, Vimes must figure out what’s going on, unravel both the low crimes and the high crimes, and not actually break the law in the process.

And, just in case you were worried, we also get a touch of Vetinari; some scenes with Carrot, Angua, Cheery, A.E. Pessimal, Fred, Nobby, and Constable Haddock; and even a Nac Mac Feegle in the form of Constable Wee Mad Arthur.

One of the major points of Snuff is to bring to light the plight of the goblins, a race of beings thought to be the lowest of the low. But, as with most races like that in Discworld (starting with the trolls, way back in The Light Fantastic), Vimes discovers that there’s a lot more to goblins than he — or anyone else — thought. And once he learns this, he becomes quite put-out that someone is transporting and enslaving the goblins to harvest tobacco in a far-off land. When Vimes gets put-out, things get done.

The second act of Snuff is stuff we’ve done before — Vimes training up a new constable (Guards! Guards!), Vimes investigating crimes against a race previously thought to be unworthy (Feet of Clay), Vimes using his cunning and experience to overcome the odds (The Fifth Elephant), and Vimes subverting the status quo in ways that shouldn’t work, but somehow do anyway (Jingo). It’s still funny and interesting, but it’s not new. Act Three is the obligatory “chase the bad guy” sequence, and a lot of action occurs. I won’t spoil it for you, except to say that the word “damn” is used a lot.

As I said before, Act One really is the best part of the book, because we’re being reintroduced to characters we haven’t spent a lot of time with since 2005’s Thud. Plus, at that point the story is simple: Vimes is going on vacation with his son. Once we get into Act Two, we get a lot of the same old Vimes-isms we’ve been getting since 1996’s Feet of Clay. I also thought the story started to get a little muddled at that point, and a little too overcomplicated.

Terry Pratchett, as is widely known, suffers from posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s that affects his motor skills but not his mental faculties. As a result, he must write via dictation, either to his assistant or to a computer. I’m not a professional writer*, but I do know that I have a much more difficult time writing if I try to dictate a story than if I actually type or write it. My guess is that Pratchett has overcome this issue, although it seems to me that the tone of the books has changed slightly, become more urgent.

In 2009’s Unseen Academicals I observed a lot of the same type of plot overcomplications as in Snuff and noted in my review of I Shall Wear Midnight — Pratchett’s previous novel — that it felt as though he was trying to shoehorn in all the ideas he’s wanted to address in future Discworld books but feared he would be unable to do due to his illness. I didn’t observe quite as much of that in Snuff, but there was still attention paid to things that I thought took away from the story. Examples include Vetinari finally finding out who writes the Times crossword puzzles, Lady Sybil using her influence to make a change in the world, and Willikins revealing to the audience what Vimes already knows: that he’s much more than your average batman**. These are all subtopics that really could have their own book, or at least their own primary subplot, but they seemed unnecessary — although certainly well-written and well-integrated into the plot of Snuff.

And that brings me to my final problem with the novel: the title. Snuff means many things, including:

  • Kill, as in a snuff film.
  • Un-light, as in snuffing out a candle.
  • A form of tobacco.

Some of these things did happen in the book, but I’ve got to think there was a better title out there somewhere. Snuff just… didn’t fit. Not to me.

Despite all of these concerns, I don’t want you to think that Snuff isn’t a good book, because it most definitely is. Pratchett’s customary humor and wit are present throughout, and the writing remains as wonderful as ever. My inner 12-year-old appreciated all the poo references, and if we’ve already done the goblin thing back when Vimes visited the Low King, at least it’s done well again. Snuff isn’t going to make the list of my favorite Discworld novels***, but I certainly enjoyed it and am looking forward to the next one.


Note to Parents: I’d rate this book PG. There’s some violence, and some mild language, and a couple of non-explicit sexual situations (Vimes and Lady Sybil are married, after all). However, it’s nothing worse than what you might see on an episode of House or Smallville. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.


* Yet.

** Don’t get too excited; he isn’t a superhero. Although that would be an interesting thing to address in a future Discworld novel.

*** 10. Jingo. 9: The Truth. 8: Reaper Man. 7: Maskerade. 6: Small Gods. 5: Moving Pictures. 4: Lords and Ladies. 3: Soul Music. 2: Feet of Clay. 1: Men at Arms.

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