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Sometimes I wonder whether, of all the literary genres, graphic novels aren’t the most stupidly overrated. I can say this because I’m old enough to remember when they were just this obscure thing you had to seek out in specialist stores like Forbidden Planet, understood only by pale, nerdy teens and twenty-somethings who felt superior to, but unappreciated by, the real world outside.
Then Watchmen came along and spoiled the party in much the same way Britpop ruined indie. Suddenly, graphic novels became everyone’s domain. See how the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta (Alan Moore was the author; David Lloyd the illustrator) has become almost as recognisable a global symbol as the McDonald’s golden arches. See how they took over the Batman franchise, with all that trademark brooding grimness, and chiaroscuro and spectacular ultraviolence.
As an early fan, reared on 2000 AD, I’d say there’s lots about the comic-book genre for which we should be grateful: the riotously cynical dystopianism of the Judge Dredd sagas; the exuberance and inventiveness of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; the wit of D.R. & Quinch; and, more recently, the joyous fun-violent escapism of Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass and Kingsman. Also, I do bloody wish they’d get on and make a movie of Fiends of the Eastern Front.
My goodness, though, there’s a lot of Emperor’s New Clothes pseudery and — let’s be honest — visual and literary incomprehensibility we’ve had to put up with on the way. While it was a cult, this was forgivable. But now that the graphic novel has become so revered that it even gets studied on university courses, its limitations deserve closer scrutiny. Basically, it’s a load of depressive wank produced by sad blokes stuck in arrested adolescence with dodgy left-wing politics to match, who are too petulant and self-regarding to follow the conventions of naturalistic storytelling, and with an understanding of human psychology about as sophisticated as Kevin the teenager’s.
I’m not sure exactly where Garth Ennis’s late-Nineties Preacher series fits on this scale but it certainly embodies most of the genre’s faults and weaknesses. On the upside, all the significant characters are memorable and arresting: Cassidy, the hard-drinking tattooed Irish vampire with the interesting haircut; Arseface, who tried to blow his head off in the manner of his hero Kurt Cobain, and now has a puckered hole where his mouth should be; and Jesse Custer, the small-town Texas preacher, whose USP isn’t just that he is tortured and extremely handy with his fists, but that he has actually been possessed by a mighty angel-demon entity called Genesis, the sum of whose powers are greater than God’s.
More powerful than God: that’s quite a big deal for any plotline to bear because it means that literally anything can happen. It’s like magic realism, only worse. The author is freed from all constraints of verisimilitude — the whole exercise can be like his personal acid trip. But do we want to experience anyone else’s personal acid trip any more than we’re interested in hearing someone’s dream recounted over breakfast? This is my problem with Preacher — as it is with the entire superhero genre. Perhaps I’m being an old fuddy-duddy, but I believe that the greatest literature is the product of its characters’ limitations: Emma and her snobbish self-regard; Pierre being a semi-mystical, excessively idealistic drunken arse. These novels are involving because they tell us about the nature of life. X-Men and so on just comprise bundles of intense characteristics bashing into one another noisily and ad infinitum.
Read the rest at the Spectator.