Recently I tried to distract and entertain a friend laid up with a severely broken ankle by setting him a series of ten-question quizzes devised off the top of my head. I tried to tailor the quizzes to some of his known areas of interest – politics, the law, geography, Australian history.
He generally performed well but I was surprised to find that he got one of his best scores, from memory nine out of ten, for a quiz on comics. He told me that his father had had a drinking mate who worked for Gordon & Gotch, the distributor of comics and magazines, and this had ensured him a steady supply of his favourites.
I had no trouble coming up with the questions. In fact, I think I set a second quiz to further test him. Questions such as, What were the names of the Phantom’s horse and dog? or Who was Mandrake’s girlfriend? or What was the name of Archie’s ill-favoured but loyal friend? gave him no trouble.
I was a keen reader of comics through my primary-school years, although I also read a lot of books. My favourite comics were The Phantom, Superman, Batman and Robin, The Lone Ranger and things of that sort. I also read Disney comics and Popeye the Sailor Man. The Katzenjammer Kids and Caspar the Friendly Ghost left me cold. Later I moved on to the Classic Comics series and to this day my knowledge of The Count of Monte Christo and The Swiss Family Robinson comes not from the books but from the classic comics.
There have been occasions on which I’ve had offers to authorise writers and illustrators to create graphic-novel versions of the Cliff Hardy stories. These proposals invariably came with samples of what the result would look like and I’ve always disliked and rejected them, although the financial incentives were sometimes attractive.
I’ve always thought that the great attraction, benefit and what might be called the mystique of reading comes from the reader of print being induced to invent the visuals in his or her head. I’ve also thought that the printed book gives scope for extensive passages of dialogue denied to the comic book.
But I knew that many people, particularly young men, read graphic novels, so was I merely being prejudiced? Was a graphic novel only marginally different from, say, the uncomplicated television shows I’d once enjoyed, like The Avengers and 77 Sunset Strip?
I browsed pretty thoroughly the large selection of graphic novels in the Newtown Branch of the City Library (a few hundred titles) to see if my dislike could be overcome.
It wasn’t. The great majority were little more than bound, rather than stapled, versions of the super-hero, sci-fi, fantasy stock-in-trade stuff of the comics. The illustrations in the apparently more serious titles had the same mind-numbing elements of wide-eyed, nubile females and square-jawed, fair-haired men. Something about the illustrations and speech bubbles seemed positively to militate against the exercise of the imagination. I may be wrong, but if I found one of my grandsons at adolescence reading a graphic novel I would hope he was also reading, or would move on pretty quickly to, printed books – the mother lode.