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Book Review :: Field Guide to Graphic Literature

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The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature: Artists and Writers on Creating Graphic Narratives, Poetry Comics, and Literary Collage edited by Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart is the newest in the publisher’s Field Guide series. To say my mind was blown when I first thumbed through this collection would be an understatement. When I settled into reading it and working through the chapters, I intermittently laughed out loud with a kind of incredulous glee that such a book exists.

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is probably the most popularly noted book on the subject of comic study and the tome that allowed many teachers to legitimize the incorporation of comics into academic classrooms. It’s the most oft-cited in this collection of essays, and while mentioned respectfully each time, there is a recognition of the limitation of his work, and in some cases, disagreements or differences of perspective. Each contributor who cites it does so as the starting point for furthering the dialogue in new concepts and theories on the practice of creating and reading contemporary graphic literature – pushing the conversation way outside the traditional comic frame.

There is attention in the introduction to labels as we are indeed well beyond “comics” as the catchall terminology. Ervick offers a historical survey of graphics (from ancient Egypt to Latin countries to Japan and medieval Europe; from wall paintings to illuminated manuscripts to the printing press, newspapers, and comic books) and an extensive review of the literature to discuss new categories and definitions. Ervick recognizes the need for adaptability and flexibility with the terminology, not meaning to argue or establish any permanently fixed definitions here. Even the categories identified in the title, while they offer an umbrella under which the authors in this book might gather, a flip through the pages easily reveals the fluidity of the categorizations. As Ervick writes, “I wanted a book where comics and visual poetry and literary collage and mixed-media narratives and erasures and altered archival documents and graphic memoirs and novels were all between the same covers.” Success!

If there was ever a book that defied singular categorization, this one does. It is multifaceted in its content, contributors, audience, and applicability. For someone new to the comics genre and/or with no formal academic training, this collection of essays, examples, and exercises offers a thorough education of the landscape of graphic literature. This is very much in keeping with Hart’s work as the executive director of The Sequential Artists Workshop, an organization and school for comics and graphic novels in Gainesville, Florida, which also offers extensive online resources and courses, including their free Friday Night Comics workshops.

It is also this approach that makes the text a perfect fit for teachers, providing rigorous pedagogical content that can be incorporated into just about any course and discipline, limited only by the willingness and imagination of the teacher. For seasoned graphic artists all the way to people who say, “Oh, I don’t draw” but somehow manage to doodle their way through Zoom meetings or fill bar napkins with abstract designs, this book, with its broad range of examples and directed exercises, offers a course of study that can be entered into at any point in the pages and returned to over and over with each repeat practices yielding unique results. As Marnie Galloway writes, “A piece of paper is comfortingly finite, but the potential it holds to become a page of comics is boundless. Comics is a multidisciplinary medium, as open to wild experimentation as it is to artists embracing traditional tools and rules, so a page of comics can take on a seemingly infinite number of forms” (“The Problem of the Page: Manifesting Imagination through Panels and Page Spreads”).

Form is a point of examination in every chapter, with each contributor offering their own survey of the history and literature of the form they present, from discussing the use of computer programs in Tom Hart’s chapter to Naoko Fujimoto’s “Merging Traditions: Composing Graphic Poetry Inspired by Japanese Emaki Picture Scrolls,” from numerous concrete linear forms to unbounded abstract approaches. Process is also a major component of discussion in each essay, with contributors discussing the theoretical and philosophical framework of their approach (complete with numerous source references), what works and what doesn’t for them, an analysis of their own work provided as an example, and then a detailed exercise for the reader to do on their own.

As much as this book is about art and graphics, it is also about critical thinking, cultural studies, psychology, history, anthropology, and writing – so much writing! – in a variety of genres, such as memoir, fiction, fantasy, poetry, and journalism. While the table of contents offers the best overview of the book, Ervick and Hart also suggest an “Alternate Table of Contents by Form.” As Ervick explains, “We decided to organize this book by craft elements to encourage experimentation across the forms of graphic literature that will nurture the development of individual skills and techniques, but we also have offered an alternate table of contents at the end of the book for those interested in concentrating their study by subcategories of the form.” These include Graphic Narratives and Comics; Fictional Comics; Nonfiction Comics & Comics Journalism; Graphic Essays & Memoirs; Abstract Comics; Poetry Comics & Comics Poetry; Literary Collage & Erasure; Collage Comics.

A part of me wishes I could go back as a new college student now, with so much more acceptance, emphasis, and support for graphic literature. What a different path my life may have taken in terms of my personal and professional experience. Suffice it to say, I couldn’t be more envious of what others have worked so hard to establish and grateful they relentlessly held to their craft, legitimizing it (still) in academia and in our larger culture. This book cements itself as a new cornerstone for artists and writers, teachers and students, editors and publishers, and anyone who has ever believed that comics in their myriad forms are literature. This book moves us past the shuffling acceptance of graphics as some kind of interloper into literature and vice versa. It plants the flag on an entirely new moon.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature: Artists and Writers on Creating Graphic Narratives, Poetry Comics, and Literary Collage edited by Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart. Rose Metal Press, July 2023

Reviewer bio: Denise Hill is Editor of NewPages.com and reviews books she chooses based on her own personal interests.

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