Gaiman, Miller & Moore – a literary education in American comic books

First, I must acknowledge the irony of this post title: I’m well aware that two of the “American” comic book writers whose work I’ll write about here aren’t American at all — Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore are English. Second, I also know that the works themselves are better categorized as graphic novels. Read on…

Friends and visitors to this blog will likely already know that I was born and raised in Japan. I grew up whiling away summer afternoons to the music of warblers and cicadas, reading Akira Toriyama, Machiko Hasegawa, Fujiko Fujio, and of course Hayao Miyazaki. Although I haven’t revisited my childhood reading of Toriyama’s Dr. Slump or Fujiko Fujio’s Doraemon, a complete seven-volume set of Miyazaki’s epic manga version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (which takes the story far beyond the 1984 movie) remains one of the great literary sagas to which I return regularly.

During an island getaway this summer (the air filled with the music of frogs and goldfinches), I reread Nausicaä in Japanese, and in so doing realized how little I actually know about comics in my other mother tongue. My only exposure to American comic books was through cousins I visited in America every few years. Reading G.I. Joe, Archie, and X-Men in the mid-80’s, I was more entertained by the silly (now classically nostalgic) ads for Sea Monkeys. Even as a pre-teen, the newsprint felt cheap, the artwork struck me as jarring, and the plot lines couldn’t compare to the domestic satire of Sazae-san or the wonderfully wacky adventures of Doraemon and his hapless pal Nobita.

(In contrast, I’ve admired and deeply enjoyed the new breed of movies in the last ten years based on superheroes, from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and various Marvel Universe films leading up to The Avengers to the heartbreakingly spectacular first two movies in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy — heartbreaking for both the loss of Heath Ledger and for the underwhelming conclusion to the trilogy. Without the baggage of a childhood full of American comic books, I’m able to watch these movies with no expectations about origin myths, anticipated romance, or primary nemeses.)

Compounded by the intense sense of cultural dislocation I felt during Emerald City Comicon earlier in the year, I determined to correct at least some of my comic book illiteracy by tackling four of the most iconic works in the genre — Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore, The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

These four graphic novels have served as the best introduction to American comic books an uninitiated adult reader like me could hope for. In the posts that follow over the coming days and weeks, I won’t debate the place each of these books holds within the literary canon, so strict formalists should gird themselves for a bit of reader-response criticism with a bit of the historical-critical method thrown in.

Stay tuned…

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