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When I was a kid, we didn’t have cellphones, we didn’t have the internet and we didn’t have graphic novels. Instead, we had landlines, libraries and comic books.

My favourite comics came from two rather different cultural traditions. On one side, I devoured the flimsy Archie comics in which the always-sporting-blonde Betty vied with the haughty, raven-haired Veronica for the attentions of the bland title character. Even at 10, I thought the notion of a man as a status symbol seemed silly, but I was intrigued by the teenage world the characters inhabited and loved Betty and Veronica’s colourful outfits.

In the other comics I read, women were practically invisible. These were bandes dessinées, the hardcover French comic books of which my favourite were the Tintin series, the adventures of a boy reporter who never seemed to have an editor or a notebook, but escaped certain death every few pages.

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The graphic novel cover of The Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury.

Hergé, the Belgian cartoonist who created Tintin, pioneered a style of illustration that became known as ligne claire. It featured even outlines and strong colours, but used little hatching or shading; the Archie comics have a similarly flat and accessible visual style. When I encountered graphic novels as an adult, they felt drab and confusing in comparison. Seth’s charmingly retro drawings in works such as Clyde Fans seemed too endearing for its sombre story of economic decline; the family saga in Jeff Lemire’s acclaimed Essex County Trilogy seemed too dark to be illustrated with strips of pictures – to name two Canadian classics as examples. Intellectually, I understood these were not children’s books and depended on a more complex relationship between picture and story. Instinctively, I found them oddly imperfect versions of the comics I once loved.

It was a movie that recently opened my mind to the medium of the graphic novel. I hugely enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s 2017 satire The Death of Stalin for its black comedy and its highly topical cynicism about political power and was intrigued to discover that its source was a bande dessinée. Of course, there are lots of live action movies based on comics, but Russian political history isn’t exactly The Avengers.

The book, by the French writer Fabien Nury and illustrator Thierry Robin, proved tougher in tone than the movie. Where Iannucci’s camera might glide through a particularly violent moment – the casual rape of a young woman by the secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, for example – Robin would freeze it with unusual closeups and steep angles. The book is satirical, but less farcical than the film. Comparing the two, it occurred to me that Iannucci had to make the film funnier to make the same points; Nury and Robin could rely more on the comedy implicit in the medium of the graphic novel, a form rendered subversive by its low position in the literary hierarchy and association with children’s books.

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The cover of graphic novel Young Frances by Hartley Lin.Adhouse Books

Well, now I was interested. And a sequel to The Death of Stalin was in the works. In the meantime, I raided my son’s bookshelf and began reading one of his favourites, Persepolis. In this autobiographical classic published in instalments in the early 2000s, Marjane Satrapi recounts her Iranian childhood, Austrian adolescence and eventual immigration to France.

Translated into English and collected in one volume, the four albums of Persepolis take long enough to read that I took the book to bed at night. I soon found myself immersed in the story just as I might lose myself in a traditional novel without benefit of illustrations. Night after night, I was captivated by the drama of the rebellious Satrapi’s lonely high school years exiled from her parents back in Iran and her difficult return to her homeland for university. My literary empathy was fully engaged.

Not all my experiments were this successful. I also tried Peter Kuper’s Ruins, the story of an American couple’s unhappy sabbatical in Mexico illustrated with beautiful images of monarch butterflies and ancient Mesoamerican culture. The visual scheme was impressive, but the unsympathetic characters were stuck in their lives and improbably uncommunicative with each other.

And then, The Death of Stalin sequel arrived. Actually, it’s more of a prequel, since it deals with an episode in Russian history before Communism. Translated into English as Death to the Tsar, it is set a decade before the 1917 Russian Revolution and the protagonist is not the Tsar, although he does appear, but rather his uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. That unfortunate aristocrat was forced to serve as governor of Moscow as the peasants were revolting. Alexandrovich knows his life is in danger, but he’d rather be visiting a gay prostitute. And his oblivious wife would rather be visiting the Côte d’Azur. Meanwhile, the terrorist Georgi plots an assassination.

The book could make another movie, although this one would more likely be a thriller in the vein of The Day of the Jackal, rather than a satire. Death to the Tsar is not a funny read, but is often deeply, bitterly and effectively ironic.

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An excerpt from the graphic novel Young Frances.Adhouse Books

On a nearby shelf at the bookstore where I bought it, I discovered a gentler form of irony. Skimming through various albums, rejecting some with themes too violent or others with illustrations too scratchy, I happened upon Hartley Lin’s Young Frances, a Canadian graphic novel just published this spring.

Uncertain of herself and somewhat depressed, the twentysomething law clerk Frances is nonetheless highly capable: She is rising fast as an administrator at the Bay Street firm where she works. Meanwhile her roommate, Vickie, a struggling actress, is suddenly propelled to stardom by a successful audition.

Young Frances is an odd thing, a graphic novel about finding yourself through work, but it also includes an unexpected romance. It delivers the ironic outsider viewpoint so central to this populist genre, yet also reproduces some of the whimsy and warmth of the comic book. Lin’s drawings are both wonderfully approachable and highly expressive: With his blank white eyes, Frances’ domineering boss looks just like the original Daddy Warbucks; a female lawyer unable to cope with the firm’s cutthroat male culture is shown lying on her back on her desk counting the ceiling tiles.

Part youthful heroine on a grand adventure, part wry observer of the adult world, Frances seemed to bring the comic books of my youth to mature life. In my belated conversion to the graphic novel, she was my best friend yet.

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