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In the Caldecott Medal acceptance speech for his innovative Black and White, in 1991, author-illustrator David Macaulay observed that “it is essential to see, not merely to look,” adding “words and pictures can support each other.” Macaulay was talking about picture books, of course, but his observation might just as well have been targeted at graphic novels, an art form that has graduated from simply being in the golden age that it entered some five years ago to what some might call a platinum age. Or, as Mark Siegel, the founder of the graphic novel imprint First Second, calls it, “a renaissance.”
And that applies not only to the overall medium but also to its constituent parts, as well, one of the most prodigiously active of which involves LGBTQ+ stories. Confirming that agreeable near frenzy of activity is what multiple Eisner Award–winning graphic novelist Eric Shanower recently told me: “LGBTQ+ subject matter is exploding in young adult graphic novels. I hear that it’s really hard to find a YA graphic novel these days without a character who is queer.”
So let’s have a look at two important, recent graphic novels with LGBTQ+ content to explore, in their contexts, the difference between Macaulay’s looking and seeing.
First up is Mike Curato’s semiautobiographical Flamer. Readers find the protagonist, 14-year-old rising freshman Aiden, whom they quickly discover is troubled, at a Boy Scout summer camp, where he is mercilessly teased and bullied for the way he stands, walks, and talks, all signifiers, his bullies think, that he is gay. But Aiden, who’s deeply religious, doesn’t know what he is, denying to himself that he is queer but fearfully wondering about his alarming feelings for his best friend, kind, football-playing Elias. It’s those feelings that—when tentatively expressed—invite despairing thoughts of suicide.
Curato supplies both words and art for this affecting story, expanding the text by capturing mood and tone in its effective use of simple, rough black lines and occasional red-and-orange ink washes, depicting not only fire (turning the title into a pun) but, metaphorically, capturing Aiden’s emotions as well. In a series of memorable panels, Curato depicts Aiden’s soul, which is embodied by fire and confronts the suicidal teen. Set in 1995, the book is a more classic coming-out novel, yes, but it eschews cliché in its powerful and honest portrayal of Aiden’s troubled thoughts and indecision, and it’s paradigmatic of our current moment, when LGBTQ+ characters in upper middle-grade novels are ascendant.
Also paradigmatic, though in a different fashion, is Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s 2020 Printz Honor Book Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, which skips over once-popular coming-out considerations to focus on the characters’ quotidian lives—and loves.
The story is straightforward: 17-year-old Freddy is head over heels in love with the terminally cute but cruelly capricious Laura Dean, who, wouldn’t you know it, keeps breaking up with her. The story charts those breakups until the end, when (spoiler alert) Freddy—to the reader’s delight—herself breaks up with Laura Dean. Yes!!
Tamaki has a brilliant gift for characterization, defining her cast, in memorable part, not only by what they think and do but also by how they talk, for she has an unerring gift for capturing authentic teen speech. And how about Valero-O’Connell’s art? It is, in a word, exquisite in its execution, in black ink with pink washes. At first the temptation might be simply to look at it the way, perhaps, one looks at art in a gallery or museum when one is in a hurry, the eye admiring only surface beauty and moving on. But it is only when slowing down and taking a second or third look that one begins to actually see it, to appreciate its happy collaboration with Tamaki’s dialogue and story, as it not only illustrates it but also amplifies it by establishing setting, helping develop characterization through giving the characters faces and bodies, and, importantly, expressions and attitudes.
In both these works, the art tightly collaborates with the text in conveying tone and emotion, adding additional depth, nuance, and meaning not specified in the words. In looking closely at these books, specifically that collaboration between text and art, one sees not only individual panels but also their arrangement on the page, which turns what might be a static exercise into a dynamic one as the eye moves from panel to panel and page to page through each complex narrative. In the final analysis, the text and art are not individual, but together form a symbiosis that is, yes, greater than the sum of its parts.
I can’t leave an examination of these two swell books without stressing the importance of their texts, since there is a temptation for the eye to focus on the art instead of the words. (Teachers complain to me about illustrated nonfiction books, because all the students want to do is look at the pictures!) I once asked Maurice Sendak if his picture books began with the art or the texts, and his reply was the text, always the text, an assertion that expresses a commonality of execution with traditional print novels. The difference is that, in such typically unillustrated books, it is the mind’s eye that must provide what is seen of character, setting, and incident. In the final analysis, though, both print novel and graphic novel share a common purpose: a happy opportunity for not only looking but also seeing.
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