Why Word Balloons Matter Today

By Stefan Slater ’10
Illustration by Ward Sutton

I’m a writer, so I read. And I read quite a bit.

I guess that’s kind of a given for a writer. But I also read because, honestly, I like to, and because reading helps me become a better writer. The key is reading: exciting tales, engrossing yarns, great stories — the kinds that keep you up at night. And when it comes to fresh, original and moving stories, comic books and graphic novels have them in spades.

For most people — including writers — if a story is told via cartoon panels and speech bubbles, it’s branded as childish, immature. If an author wants to tell a serious story of the literary variety, it’s best to keep the print tiny, the paragraphs long and the setting mundane. Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to remember that the medium used to tell a story doesn’t denote the quality of a story.

Take “Maus,” for example, by Art Spiegelman. In his graphic novel, Spiegelman interviews his father, a Polish Jew, about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. But the twist is that all of the people are depicted as cartoonish animals: Jews are mice and Germans are cats. It’s serious subject matter, but by juxtaposing grim events and illustrations associated with children, the content becomes all the more unsettling and visceral.

Graphic novels — and their smaller-page-count brethren, comic books — deal with weighty, but ultimately human, stories.

“Saga,” by Brian K. Vaughan, tells the story of two soldiers, each from different warring factions in an interstellar conflict, who marry, have a child and spend the entire series trying to outrun the war. The sci-fi setting serves as framework for a story about a couple raising their first child and dealing with the frustrations, arguments, scares and wonders that newlyweds and new parents experience day in and day out.

Then there’s “DMZ” by Brian Wood: A young photojournalist documents the Second American Civil War from New York City, which has been declared a demilitarized zone and where suicide bombings, civilian massacres and shoddy journalism run rampant. Wood takes our nation’s post-9/11 fears and the conflict in Iraq, mixes everything together, and drops the concoction right in a battle-scarred Times Square.

“Sandman,” by Neil Gaiman, revolves around an immortal character named Dream, who rules his realm, the world of dreams, nightmares and waking fantasies, and thereby shapes reality. “Fables,” by Bill Willingham, depicts classic fable characters as living in a New York City apartment complex, trying to blend in with us “mundys.” Each character is modernly human: Snow White and Prince Charming are divorced (infidelity on Charming’s part), Cinderella runs a failing small business (a shoe store), and Pinocchio copes (poorly) with never actually hitting puberty.

Classic comic book heroes are human, too. In Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” a retired Batman is forced to confront aging and an addiction to vigilantism. In the recent renditions of two DC Comics’ standbys, main characters are gay: Alan Scott, whose alter ego is the Green Lantern, and Kate Kane, Batwoman. Comic book heroes are strong and independent, and represent all walks of life — these are characters that we can not only relate to, but look up to as well.

Great comics and graphic novels deal with approachable stories. Simply because a story is told using illustrated panels doesn’t mean the subject is any less serious or relatable. From “The Dark Knight” to “Maus,” these are moving, emotional stories that help explain who we are as people. And isn’t that the point of literature to begin with?

About the Author

Stefan Slater ’10 is an L.A. writer who covers topics from comic book culture to surfing on the Great Lakes for local lifestyle magazines. Reach him at stefanaslater.com.

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