Jeff Suess is a superhero of sorts – he’s a tireless crusader for the literary power of the graphic novel. By day, Suess, 34, is a mild-mannered news librarian at The Cincinnati Enquirer. But on the second Saturday of every month, he morphs into the leader of the graphic novel discussion group at The Mercantile Library, able to leap complex storylines and amazing illustrations in a single bound. Squee! caught up with Suess to talk about his group, his favorite books and giving graphic novels the props they deserve.
Squee!: How did you get into graphic novels?
Suess: I started reading comics when I was ten, just after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns came out. There weren’t many graphic novels then. The market was still for single issues. So most graphic novels were really collections of completed stories. That’s how I read Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns because the back issues were too expensive.
Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was the first series that I wanted the collections, even though I have most of the original issues. But it was when libraries started carrying graphic novels that I really expanded my reading—European artists, independents, manga—beyond what I might purchase on my own.
Squee!: What’s the first novel you remember reading?
Suess: The first collected edition was Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which I read in 1987 or 1988. The first original graphic novels were probably Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, and Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean.
Squee!: In your opinion, what’s the best graphic novel ever written?
Suess: Watchmen. No question. Alan Moore is to comics what Shakespeare is to drama. He breaks the molds and redefines the medium. Watchmen has a great story with intriguing, complex characters, and it is the most influential book out there. It deconstructs superhero comics, it popularized the violent anti-hero, it brought social and political aspects to mainstream comics. It did all that, yes. But there are a lot of books that are well written—The Sandman is a better, more complex story, I think—but Watchmen goes beyond that and pushes against the perceived constraints of the medium to explore new territory.
Alan Moore uses images and text to reflect each other, or juxtapose, or complement. And the art is terrific. Dave Gibbons is not the most celebrated artist, but he brought everything he had to this book. He designed an entire alternate world, with incredible detail. He designed the city, so every shot has the correct buildings in the correct places. He created a reality that the reader can buy into. Alan Moore is known for his insanely elaborate scripts, laying out the placement of every little detail, so there’s incredible depth, and a few neat tricks. He uses repeated motifs, like the smiling face pin.
The “Fearful Symmetry” issue is done as a complete reflection. Panel 1, page 1 is reflected in the last panel of the last page. When Rorschach climbs the stairs in a building near the beginning, near the end, he descends those stairs. Panel by panel, it’s all a reflection. This is just a brilliant work. No one has ever utilized the medium to this great of an effect. I could go on for hours about Watchmen.
I’ll also mention The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. It’s a literary masterpiece that covers the entirety of time and story yet feels intimate. Gaiman is the best storyteller who works in comics. Alan Moore is the best storyteller using comics.
Squee!: How did the graphic novel discussion get started at the Merc?
Suess: Edmund Osterman founded the group and led it for the first two years, though I have been part of the group since the beginning. The first meeting was in October 2007, discussing Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Squee!: How did it come about?
Suess: Edmund is an English teacher and wanted to use his love of comics as a teaching tool. I think he was a member of the Mercantile and he works on some comics of his own. I also write comics and have been reading them for a long time, so I was very active in discussions. Edmund asked me to take over in November 2009 when his schedule made it difficult to make it each month.
Squee!: The Merc isn’t the most likely place for a discussion on graphic novels. I love the place but it isn’t what I think of when I think “graphic novels.” Was this deliberate? Did you want to show people that graphic novels can be just as literary as other kinds of novels?
Suess: I think that was part of Edmund’s intention and I try to continue that. One thing that most people don’t realize is that graphic novels are a medium, not a genre. That’s not merely quibbling over words. Western is a genre, mystery is a genre. There are certain conventions that all westerns must have to be westerns. Film is a medium, the novel is a medium. There is a huge difference between, say, Citizen Kane and Saw 3-D. But people are stuck on the idea that comics equal superheroes. Comics are for kids. That’s like saying all novels are romances.
Like with any medium there is a wide range of quality of graphic novels. There is some important literature, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus. And there is stuff that never pretended to be anything other than entertainment. But graphic novels are a relatively new medium. They started appearing in the 1970s, but it has only been in the last fifteen years or so that more artists have started to tap their potential. Libraries are a huge reason for the popularity of graphic novels. Acceptance by librarians really legitimizes graphic novels as a medium, and this discussion group at the Mercantile is a part of that. Several of our readers had never read a comic or graphic novel before, and they first have to learn how to read a graphic novel, how to pay attention to the image as well as the words. But they come back, so this seems to be working.
Squee!: How do you choose the novels you’ll discuss each month?
Suess: The one stipulation is that there are enough copies available at the public library because graphic novels are not cheap. I don’t want people turned off of the group because they don’t want to buy the book. I’d rather have more people read and discuss, but that excludes some great books because there aren’t enough copies. I’d like to do more manga but there are only one or two copies of the good stuff, like Osamu Tezuka’s works. Many of the books I didn’t read before we selected them, so it’s not always the quality that attracts us. I check the new arrivals lists at the library to see what sparks some interest.
I also try to vary the selections. The discussion started out with a popular literary graphic novel, Persepolis, and then we all bring in our recommendations, what we’re interested in reading. We run the gamut: the established greats, Will Eisner, Ghost World, Jimmy Corrigan; ones with adult themes; international books like Aya and Exit Wounds; ones for children, like Owly and Tintin. I aim for a complete story, but some graphic novels are too large to cover in an hour—like Jeff Smith’s Bone, where we read the first volume.
Some people treat graphic novels as synonymous with independent comics, but there is some quality mainstream books. We have done superheroes and romance and war stories and biographies and weird books that are hard to categorize, like Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. In December, we did our first comic strip, the ancestor to graphic novels, with a volume of Charles Schulz’s Complete Peanuts. I am also trying to bring an education of the history of the medium and its potential. That includes comic strips and old comics and the big superheroes, even children’s books. If you think about it, picture books are sequential illustrations that help tell the story.
Squee!: Which novel created the mostly lively discussion?
Suess: Some books have more meat than others. There is a lot going on in Sandman and Maus. But some pleasant surprises that got great responses were The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan and Percy Gloom by Cathy Malkasian. There were several layers of complexity in Percy Gloom, and it really stuck with us. One reader who missed the discussion meeting e-mailed me to discuss that book.
Squee!: If you were recommending graphic novels to newbies, what would you start them off with?
Suess: That depends on who they are, what they are interested in. If it’s a kid: Jeff Smith’s Bone. Women: Sandman or Fables or Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise. Guys: Probably The Walking Dead. For more literary readers, like Mercantile members, Maus. Or start with the best: Watchmen. It’s a gateway book. Some new readers take a bit to get used to how to read comic, that the art is an essential part of the story, so maybe the works of Norwegian cartoonist Jason, which are mostly wordless. Incredible storytelling, though. Or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival—wordless but with photorealistic art. It’s all about finding something that the reader will like and that will also show the potential of graphic novels.
Squee!: Why would you recommend The Walking Dead for guys but not for women? What kind of stories do you think draw more attention from women?
Suess: I’m sure there are women who enjoy The Walking Dead. I’d make recommendations based on the person’s interests. It’s about getting them hooked on reading graphic novels. So you start with something that would appeal to the reader. I have a female friend who thought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had too much Pride and Prejudice and not enough zombies. She might like The Walking Dead. But typically—and these are generalizations—guys like things that are “cool.” Zombies are cool. Men are attracted to visuals. They often buy a comic because they like an artist. Women are drawn more to the story.
Women have typically not been into comics. They are turned off by muscle-bound heroes and scantily clad women with impossible anatomies that are everywhere in mainstream comics. Women are interested in more realistic characters. Those can be fantasy characters, like vampires or aliens—I mean that they have realistic emotions. They are more rounded characters. Women are also drawn to strong female characters. Sandman was one of the first graphic novels to attract a female audience. Neil Gaiman even alternated the focus of his story arcs, one more female-oriented, one more male- oriented. I think women are attracted to a story or characters that they can be invested in, while guys go for “That looks awesome!” and stick around for a good story.
Squee!: What do you say to people who think because a novel is illustrated, it’s for children?
Suess: Unless I happen to have a graphic novel handy, I have to speak to them in terms they understand. Most people know movies, and if you tell them that Road to Perdition and A History of Violence and Sin City and 300 were all graphic novels, they are usually surprised. There have been a slew of movies based on comics—Ghost World, Kick-Ass, V for Vendetta, which are all adult. Even The Dark Knight showed that movies based on superheroes aren’t just for children. But the real way to get them to understand is to show them, to get them reading.
In the 1980s, when comics started to “grow up,” there came the refrain that “comics aren’t just for kids anymore.” I’ve even used that phrase myself. But it dismisses some great comics that are for kids. It all goes back to comics and graphic novels as a medium. Are cartoons only for kids? Watch South Park. Or even the Pixar movies. There seems to be a prejudice that if it’s for children, it has no value. That’s just not true at all.
Squee!: Do you think older people who read graphic novels are stereotyped because of that interest?
Suess: Unfortunately, yes. Even I am self-conscious about reading a graphic novel at lunch or riding the elevator. And I often have to defend it. It helps that I can send them to the graphic novel discussion group at The Mercantile—that sounds all sophisticated. But we’re slowly making inroads. The way it is happening, as it usually does, is with money. The Dark Knight makes $500 million. A-list Hollywood celebrities attend Comic-Con. That people notice. The fact that we’re even discussing this, that the Mercantile Library has a graphic novel group, it means attitudes are changing.
Squee!: Anything else you’d like to address?
Suess: Scott McCloud has done a terrific job analyzing the art form of comics in Understanding Comics. It’s a sort of text book for comics and graphic novels—and it’s a graphic novel itself.
Also, I’ll plug the discussion group. We meet the second Saturday of every month at 1 p.m. at The Mercantile Library, at 414 Walnut Street, 11th floor, downtown Cincinnati. E-mail me to get on the mailing list.