Word Play: Confessions of a graphic-novel convert, or, the perfect bat mitzvah gift

Special to the Los Angeles Times

I am a latecomer to graphic novels. Years ago, my truly literary friends tried to turn me on to the groundbreaking art of the “Sandman” books (Neil Gaiman and various artists) and “Love and Rockets” (Los Bros. Hernandez). I admit I felt about those books the way I feel about great horror movies: I could admire the art, but they did not make my heart sing.

When I was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review in the 1990s, I tried without success to get one or another of those literary friends to commit their intriguing ideas about the emerging world of graphic novels to a piece for the Book Review, but they were apparently keeping their enthusiasms to themselves and their aficionados. But graphic novels since then have come out into the literary open. Artists like Shaun Tan have stormed the gates of book prizes, and more classics than you can shake a stick at, fiction and nonfiction, have been translated into graphic format. There are at least four versions of the Anne Frank story, including, published just last month, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s “Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography” (Hill and Wang: $30 hardcover, $16.95 paper)!

No graphic novel based on a classic has yet struck me as more than an amusing parlor trick, although the recent adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” by French graphic-novel star Joann Sfar (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $19.99) — reviewed in this Sunday’s book coverage — contains one brilliant visual riff. The original novella opened with Saint-Exupéry explaining he did not become an artist because grown-ups did not understand his drawings of boa constrictors digesting their prey; as a result, he studied things grown-ups consider serious and became a pilot. In Sfar’s version, these musings take place while the author’s plane is going down over the Sahara desert. The desperate pilot is conversing with a fantastic creature formed from his cigarette smoke (no one smokes like the French!), which at one point morphs into a boa constrictor and threatens to engulf him. The passage ends with the smoke-creature slyly admonishing the pilot: “By the way, you shouldn’t smoke in a book for young people.”

Now THAT is a successful graphic-novel interpretation; Sfar takes the essence of the original and adds a comic-book level of thrill and ironic commentary. The resulting experience is recognizable for lovers of the original and satisfying for those new to the story.


By contrast, the creators of the graphic-novel version of “The Lightning Thief” (Disney/Hyperion: $19.99) — Book 1 of Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series — appear to be talking down to their readers. If readers are too dimwitted to read the original novel, this slap-dash comic-book implies, they’ll also be too dimwitted to notice that the panels don’t tell a continuous story; let’s assume they’re here only for the action.

Now that I am immersed in the world of children’s books and perhaps more educated in the interplay between art and text, I have finally fallen in love with my first graphic novel. I don’t count the many interesting children’s books that experiment with the relationship between text and art, the marvelous stories-with-cartoons, like Jeff Kinney’s “Wimpy Kid” books and Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” or Brian Selznick’s fabulous hybrid novel with wordless picture passages, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” No, a graphic novel tells its story like comic books of old — with panels of pictures, characters speaking in bubbles, and narration, when necessary, appearing in captions.

Barry Deutsch’s “Hereville” (Abrams/Amulet: $15.95, ages 9-12) takes place in an Orthodox Jewish community — a village not bound to a particular place and time but isolated and set in a surrounding wood. Our heroine, Mirka, lives to fight dragons — indeed, lives for any adventure that might sweep her away from her stepmother’s instruction in “the womanly arts.” The trouble is that girls in Hereville don’t get to fight monsters — Mirka knows about monsters only from a goyish (non-Jewish) book she keeps hidden under her mattress. When she is apparently attacked by a monster while investigating a mysterious house in the forest, her sister has to explain to her that the monster is a pig, an animal all but unknown to Orthodox kids (“The farm animal? Gentiles eat them? Oink-oink?”).

“Hereville” is probably a graphic novel for readers whose main love is still for the text. I don’t suppose that real art-lovers will thrill to the depiction of characters distinguished largely by a single facial feature. But there are moments in “Hereville,” like the one in “The Little Prince,” when the pleasure of reading comes from something that can be done only with words and pictures together and in no other form.

The first tickle in “Hereville,” for me, came from the Yiddish words sprinkled throughout the text, which are marked with an asterisk and translated at the bottom of the page. Yiddish, a singularly nuanced and expressive language, lends itself to translation at many levels of speech; Deutsch introduces a new level, which I would call “comic-book speak,” so that “oy gevalt!” (a cry of suffering or frustration) becomes “sheesh!” It’s a perfect translation — le mot juste, indeed.

Deutsch elegantly explains the special atmosphere of shabbos (the sabbath) in Jewish tradition. The adventure in the story comes skidding to a halt at sundown on Friday night, because “troll killing, Mirka understood, was not a Shabbos thing.” For several pages, the pictures take on a leisurely pace, while the family lights candles, sings, prays, naps. But the moment “uvdin d’chol” — the weekday things — resume, Mirka is back at her mission. “Fruma, how do I kill a troll?” she asks her stepmother.

My true moment of conversion came in a single, wordless panel. Mirka’s sisters are tired of hearing of this “monster” that she has become obsessed by. “What kind of a Jew owns a pig?” Mirka’s older sister asks dismissively.

“Maybe the woman in the house isn’t Jewish,” another sister casually suggests. At this comment, the sisters turn toward her with mouths hung open in disbelief: Monsters or witches they can imagine, but that anyone in THEIR world might not be Jewish? It’s a cinematic moment, the stare of both girls directed straight out at the reader, as if at the camera, the narrowness of their experience conveyed wordlessly in their open-mouthed incomprehension. The panel conveys Mirka’s world in a single image — the whole story of her desire for a bigger life, her thirst for a single chance to fight a dragon.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but put the right few pictures together with the right thousand words, and you’ve got a great graphic novel — also, if you have a 13-year old in Los Angeles or New York, the perfect bat mitzvah gift.

“Word Play” appears monthly at