One characteristic of graphic novels that might—or might not—play a role in their consideration as serious literature is the speed with which they are absorbed. A long novel takes a long time to read, and even a short one is a considerable investment in time; a couple hours at least, which compares to a movie and allows the reader/viewer time to absorb thematic ideas along with shifts in character and plot and so forth. Admittedly, a poem is often a short work that can be read in a few minutes (or less), but an individual poem is less likely to establish a writer’s reputation than is a significant number of poems, likely collected in an anthology.
On the other hand, comics, as graphic novels used to be called, are a narrative art form which tend toward being extremely quick to read. This quickness, I think, has bearing on whether or not they are accorded the kind of thematic weight which we demand of our “serious” literature. There are exceptions, of course. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s 572-page From Hell and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home are both densely-packed stories littered with historical and literary allusion, and whose convoluted storylines and detailed artistic compositions reward repeated readings. Ditto for the work of Chris Ware, whose Acme Novelty Library forces the reader to slow down and take in every panel and every gesture, often by the technique of presenting panels in non-linear form (so it’s not immediately obvious which frame the reader should move to next, or whether it even matters).
I bring all this up in the context of Tom Gauld’s Goliath, because it strikes me that the white elephant in the room of comics discussions is precisely this: that comics can be read so fleetingly that they frankly don’t seem terribly substantial. This book is a case in point. Gauld’s hardcover retelling of the Biblical David and Goliath story brings us Goliath as the main character and David appearing in a brief walk-on role. It’s clever and thought-provoking to some degree, and it runs to 96 pages. I read it in 15 minutes.
I don’t mean to start some debate that “books have to be long in order to be important” or some similar nonsense. I do, however, think that works of art, or even works of entertainment, should engage us deeply in order to have an impact. That’s why an outstanding hour-long record will seem more significant than an excellent three-minute song, and why a two-hour movie has the potential to move us more than a 30-minute TV show, and so forth. Feel free to disagree of course, but I think this is a useful rule of thumb. Depth of engagement + duration of experience = importance to the audience.
In comics, where dialogue and narration often take a back seat to the narrative image (and rightly so), there needs to be something about those images that compel the reader to linger. Textural depth is one way to do it; color is another. A striking compositional layout might bring the reader up short, or an unusually complex, beautifully rendered image. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis uses simplicity of line and character but reconfigures them in countless ways, with earlier frames echoed in later ones. Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze packs in the detail, while Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba layer on the colors to createdreamy, hallucinatory landscapes to linger over.
Gauld’s artwork in Goliath is simple almost to the point of primitivism. Pen-and-ink drawings are devoid of detail and minimally shaded with simple cross-hatching, while colors are limited to black, white, and a sepia tone reminiscent of old photos. These elements are combined in a multitude of clever ways, but are nonetheless extremely limited in their effect. There’s little here to savor; the childlike drawings tell a childlike story of a childlike figure who suffers a tragedy that has been written for thousands of years.
Nor is the dialogue particularly illuminating. Goliath is a giant, yes, but he has zero interest in fighting. He’s a natural administrator and that’s what he likes to do—early on he trades his patrol duty with another soldier assigned to admin so that he can sit by his tent and pore over documents. It’s a clever conceit, but that’s as far as it goes. He’s a laconic character who seems to exist primarily as a foil to the Biblical representation of him as a threatening bully.
Biblical reinterpretation is a legitimate field for literature—I’ve written three such novels myself —but there needs to be something more to the storytelling than the simple reversion of expected roles. Goliath has moments suggestive of metaphor that move beyond the literal story—a chained bear, a wayward shepherd—but little is made of these things. Really, there’s not much going on here beyond the obvious: “Look, Goliath wasn’t a bad guy! He was a victim, get it? And ever since, we’ve only been hearing the other side of the story.”
Okay fine, that’s interesting enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. If you’ve got a free 15 minutes, this little book will divert you well enough, but if you expect anything more than that, you are likely to be disappointed.
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