In the last couple of decades comic books or graphic novels have flowered into a serious literary and artistic medium. Writers like Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Raymond Briggs, Shaun Tan and Dr Seuss, to name but a few, have extended the range and power of this medium at every level and for every kind of readership. These modern graphic texts are capable of taking us into virtual experiences of war, history, politics and other distinctly non-childlike areas in the most personal and profound ways whilst often retaining some of the comedy, subversion and larger-than-lifeness of their more ephemeral and often disregarded antecedents. Although in many countries comics enrich the literature curricula of schools, England has on the whole been disdainful of them and needs to catch up. The books I want to discuss here have themes like diversity, identity, ethnicity and displacement of one kind or another at their heart, but they deserve to be included in school reading for their challenging and exciting qualities not because they will aid some multi-cultural orientation that we need to add into the literary mix. The aim of this paper is to introduce readers to some powerful and enjoyable texts which also happen to tick, as it were, the multicultural boxes.
Journeys in fantasy, imagination and culture
Most graphic novelists have worked on newspapers and magazines (Dr Seuss, Herge) or have produced children's books and versions of fairy tales (Briggs, Spiegelman) and have had some proximity to political and war reportage. Their work reaches back both to 'high' art--like Goya's cartoons The Disasters of War or Hogarth's satires of city life, or even to the picture/text representation of the Bayeux tapestry--and to the more lowly world of children's comics. I like this mix as it combines what appear to be opposite kinds of reading experience and makes the question of readership ambiguous. For example consider Shaun Tan's comments on Briggs' The Snowman:
I could not help reading the silent snowman and small boy
as 'temporary migrants', discovering the ordinary miracles of
each other's country in a modest, enchanting fashion. It also
confirmed the power of the silent narrative, not only in
removing the distraction of words, but slowing down the
reader so that they might meditate on each small object and
action, as well as reflect in many different ways on the story
as a whole.
If you combined a reading of Tan's The Arrival (2006) with Briggs' The Snowman (1978) and The Man (1992) and maybe added Satrapi's Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2006), you could conduct a literary journey of migration and exile with readers of every age and reading background, from Primary to HE and beyond. I've also found in my own teaching of literature that sometimes the texts that don't seem to be ostensibly from 'other' cultures nevertheless can be powerful in addressing aspects of intercultural understanding indirectly . That first came home to me when I was teaching in Joan Goody's English department at Clissold Park School in London in the 1960s. Joan found that children who had come to Clissold as immigrants from the Caribbean were very impressed that Britons had been slaves under the Romans, which emerged from their reading of Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth. The Snowman and The Arrival are not teaching readers directly about another culture but yet explore the experience of migration through fantasy and imagination.
Recently I discovered some old graphic novels from German expressionist artists of the early 20C (Masereel 1919; 1925; Lynd 1929); they too are wordless and often involve a journey, like the one in The Arrival, but this time the journey of man through life. The woodcut plates are exquisite and powerful in these books which could never be called comics but are nevertheless designated graphic novels by their authors. …