I recently illustrated a book cover for Marie Marshall’s upcoming novel, and there’s been talk of further collaboration on a graphic novel. This got me thinking about what makes a good graphic novel good, which is just another way of asking:
“What is a graphic novel that I’d want to read?”
So I revisited my favourite titles and came up with this brief list of high-level elements often found in a good graphic novel:
1. Show or tell—just not both!
An anecdote from book cover designer Chip Kidd (the dude responsible for the iconic Jurassic Park poster) goes like this:
On my first day of my graphic design training at Penn State University, the teacher, Lanny Sommese, came into the room, and drew a picture of an apple on the blackboard and wrote the word apple underneath. He covered up the picture and said, “You either say this”, and then he covered up the word, “or you show this.”
And then he took his hand away so that you had the picture of the apple and the word apple, and he said, “But you don’t do this. Because this is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.”
We all know that you shouldn’t belittle your reader when writing fiction, and the same goes with book cover design, and drawing/writing a graphic novel. Don’t explain away concepts or ideas that are better left to the reader’s imagination.
2. The characters are relatable and entertaining.
When I think about relatable characters, I think of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, which is about two cynical high school graduates trying to figure out the rest of their lives while (unintentionally) dissolving their friendship. Clowes does a spectacular job of capturing, through either showing or telling, near universal adolescent I’ve-been-there moments:
Sometimes relating to a character can come from the small things, like a detail about finding a favourite record you thought was lost. And watching the acerbic 1977 original punk Enid hug a package put together by her passive father is as entertaining as it is endearing.
3. Action must be punctuated with interludes.
Too much action is boring. Die Hard would be especially boring if you stripped away the Christmas carols and replaced them with scenes of Bruce Willis raising his Beretta, cartwheeling, and heroically driving bullets into a blond Snape over and over again. Too much action dilutes the plot and burns the eyes because there’s no time to digest what the story is all about.
Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One depicts Bruce Wayne stabbed and in critical condition with his hand on the bell that summons Alfred. Instead of another action scene where Alfred rushes to Bruce’s aid, Bruce looks at his deceased father’s bust, then at a bat that crashed through the window, and calmly solidifies his position as Gotham’s caped crusader. It’s a powerful scene, and says more about Batman than kicks and punches ever will.
What are your tips for writing or drawing a good graphic novel?