Off the Shelf — It's a Bird! It's a Plane!

“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!”

I would venture a guess that just about everyone knows that line, but only a few have ever actually read The Adventures of Superman. Graphic novels and comic books are severely overlooked art forms, and are seen as absurd or juvenile. I’d argue that the absurdity and child-like nature of comic books is what makes it so special. There’s a certain charm to the unimaginable becoming commonplace. In comics, you can find a mutated teenager fighting crime, a resurrected soldier from World War II busting up a drug ring, a blind man fighting ninjas, and a man made of orange bricks wrestling dinosaurs all in the same day. For everyone else, it’s just another day in New York City. Graphic novels take the normal world and dare it to be fantastic.

The first comic book I ever owned was Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragones. I walked into the local comic book store and I was absolutely floored. I had looked over a few of my brother’s Spider-Man comics before and I liked the show on Fox Kids but I realized as soon as I had stepped into that store that I really didn’t understand anything about comic culture. The walls were covered in posters of monsters and heroes and plastic figurines everywhere. I hadn’t realized that there were so many options. Now you must understand, I was a very socially awkward kid and when faced with these kinds of conundrums I usually would have just left rather than asking for help but something special was in the air besides the smell of old print and mylar plastic. I walked up to the guy behind the counter, whose name I later learned was Roger, and asked him “What should I read?” He asked me what I was into. I shrugged and said, “Something funny, I guess.” So he showed me Groo, a comic that parodies Conan the Barbarian that is about a witless warrior and his faithful, sarcastic dog. After the first issue, I spent every weekend and every weekend’s allowance going back to that store and getting every issue I could find. Roger and I even became good friends. Roger hadn’t just provided me with a life-long passion but also a sense of community, something to be a part of.

The graphic novel is an art form unlike any other; the marriage of literature and art. It’s written like a book but scripted like a film. There are things that a graphic novel can describe that a book never could and vice versa. It’s one thing to describe a beautiful sun setting over Kent Farms in Superman for All Seasons but quite another to see the breathtaking watercolors of Tim Sale splash across the page in a dazzling display of yellows, oranges, and pinks as Clark and his father look on. The kind of dramatic pacing found in Watchmen is unsurpassed but especially because often the tension and the feeling of dread of the future is achieved without saying a single word.

People look to comic books for a number of reasons: to inspire us, to warn us, to entertain us. In many ways, the mythologies of ancient times have evolved into the modern pantheon of comic book characters. I say that we look to graphic novels because the human imagination is too limitless not to. Comics can be bigger than life like an immortal sun god from Kansas or simplicity itself like the chronicles of a young boy and his tiger.

If you have never read a graphic novel, I strongly urge you to go to your local bookstore or library or comic book shop and ask someone to help you down the long and rewarding road of graphic novels. If you think there can’t possibly be a graphic novel out there to fit your reading style, you’re probably wrong. Graphic novels have heroes, monsters, real people, history, culture, tragedy, comedy, and so much more.

Roger is part of the reason I became a bookseller at Country Bookshelf. I wanted to help people not just find a story to keep them entertained over summer vacation or to distract them momentarily, but to find a book that would shape their lives. I hope that I can be like Roger and recommend something that can expand your mind and change the way you read forever.

'Nuff said.

-- Harry Jahnke