How many graphic novels can you name that would count as literature? There's Watchmen
, naturally. And Maus
, you can't forget that one! Oh, and The Dark Knight Returns
... and eh... Persepolis
... that would count too... hmmm. The high art of graphic novels sort of stops around there. That's not to say that everything else isn't good, but rather, nothing else is breaking down boundaries between the comic book world the the world of literature where the greatest writers preside. For those of us who look for something deeper, something more thoughtful, something more layered in comic books there really isn't anywhere else to go outside of diving into the expensive regular series such as the Sandman
series by Neil Gaiman
. Well, I'd like to add one more book to the list; David Lapham's City of Crime
Of course I'm not going to walk into this singing about how great this graphic novel is, though it is pretty damn good, without something to back myself up. As comic books, and more specifically graphic novels, become more and more mainstream it was only a matter of time before literary influences bled over from prose novels into the comic book world. This GN, more so than The Dark Knight Returns
, and perhaps equal to Watchmen
utilises the written word as much as it does the art.
This is a big claim to make I know. But to help me support my claim I've enlisted the help of two dead literary giants;Charles Dickens
and William Shakespeare
Of course Shakespeare we all know for his fairly poor plays yet incredible use of language, but Dickens is probably most well known for providing the inspiration for The Muppet Christmas Carol
staring Michael Caine
and Rizzo the Rat
. But it is not A Christmas Carol
which I need to-day (well, tonight over here, it's just gone midnight). It's the critically acclaimed Bleak House
and the more acclaimed MacBeth
has been described as a Gothic, detective drama (sounds familiar already doesn't it?) and is the first of its kind. Written in the early 1850s, it is full of intense metaphors, images and similes and has become considered a classic. Its style and intense, and often dirty, portrayal of the city of London has had far reaching influences on many works of the Gothic mode and of detective drama; just read on to find out.
“London.” So Dickens begins his novel and reveals its setting. This word alone provides much of the necessary detail to describe the city of this piece of Gothic, detective fiction. Just from the name a scene is created. However, the detailing which Dickens subsequently adds does not coincide with a bright, progressive city of modernity but rather a city slipping into destruction;
“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”
The sky is filled with black, blocking out the sun, thus ending life. The apocalyptic overtones should not be ignored here. In Bleak House
the city is nearing the end. Similarly David Lapham
begins City of Crime
with the name of the city; “Gotham City.” In much the same way as in Bleak House
the scene is set with the name of the city that will play an integral part in the shaping of the story. Lapham continues;
“Six million people reside within her confines. Her largest vertical structures rival in height even those of great Metropolis. But where the golden towers of that city reach toward heaven, Gotham’s peaks and spires seem poised as a defense. A warning… Her roots burrow straight down into hell.”
It is here that the two novels begin to diverge in their meanings, but not in their descriptions. Whereas Dickens’ imagery is scientific in nature, invoking the sun as life and the scientific theories of evolution, Lapham’s verges on the religious, invoking hell and heaven, providing an interesting development which arises in metaphors later.
Gotham City and Victorian London
Both Lapham and Dickens use lizard metaphors to help symbolise the fall of the two cities. Dickens introduces the elephantine “Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so”, which could walk down the streets of London and not be noticed amongst the mud and smoke, to show the devolution of the city of London and its inhabitants. Instead of humanity and nature moving forward, evolving and reaching up, they are instead falling back in time to the point where dinosaurs share the same space as humans. Lapham, while using lizards to show Gotham’s recession from evolution and humanity into barbarism, chooses instead the image of a “serpentine maze of narrow streets and alleyways trap[ping] ever sin.” The obvious connotations are to be drawn with “the Fall” from the Bible. This reasserts the religious imagery from before, while also implying the city of Gotham as being banished from God. Both authors use strikingly similar images and metaphors, with completely different meanings, and yet still arrive to the same fundamental description of the cities of London and Gotham; these places are dark, shadowy and slowly moving closer to destruction.
An image from epic poem Paradise Lost detailing the Fall
Where does MacBeth
feature in all of this doom and gloom I hear you ask. Well stop rushing me I'm getting to that! Jesus, some people these days have no patience...
, Prince of Gotham right? Thus making him a symbolic royalty. A relic of a time when men and women like Thomas and Martha Wayne led Gotham to a brighter future. The King and Queen of Gotham. But when they are murdered in an alleyway during a simple robbery, Gotham tears itself to pieces. The city falls into the hands of gangsters and corrupt politicians.
What should have happened was that the role of leader of Gotham should have passed on to their son, Bruce. When it doesn't, the city of Gotham reacts to the usurpers. This is what's called the Divine Right of Kings
. This features heavily in MacBeth
as when Macbeth takes the kingship of Scotland by murdering the rightful king, and banishing his heirs, the “poor country” is filled by “sighs and groans and shrieks that rent the air”. Macbeth lacks the attributes to stop the plague of evil that follow his kingship, even asking for a doctor to “cast/ the water of my land, find her disease”.
In an interesting twist, even though Bruce Wayne becomes Batman to stop the crime and the destruction of his
city, and reclaim control of it from the gangsters, the persona of Batman is as much a separate person as Bruce Wayne is. This means that the city of Gotham, much like Scotland in Macbeth
is hurt and broken by the domination of the Batman. In City of Crime
Gotham, continually referred to as a "madwoman" reaches out to destroy the usurper Batman who has taken the place of Bruce. Eventually, it is only through the discovery of Gotham's disease (terror and fear), and the cleansing flooding of the dock area that the city breaks under the domination of the Batman.
I wrote this blog, partly because I wanted to see if I could, and partly to illustrate the point to those non-believers, wherever they are, that graphic novels can contain a lot more layers and deep complex ideas inside. It is also to bring to light a novel which I have never heard mentioned in the same breath as Year One
or The Dark Knight Returns
, and I felt the need to correct this gross oversight.
Some of you no doubt will consider what I've done here as killing the fun of comics, treating them in a way which you don't think they should be treated. I disagree. I love comics. And I believe that these books are literature, and should be treated as such. With a critical eye, a thoughtful insight, and a deep consideration of the history of each metaphor and simile and beautifully drawn image. If we can consider the works of Dickens to be classic literature, then why not City of Crime
? In the opening pages they share more in common than any other two pieces of fiction I've ever read. Call me crazy, but it's the comics like these which made me love the medium.
Anyway, it's 02:17 here and I've to go to bed. I'd love to hear what you think of my two cents, and I'd love to hear yours regarding comic book literature. Talk to ya later.
"In the dark, sticky fingers don't pick at the hard, crusty scabs of a wounded knee. In the dark, desperate fingernails go scratch, scratch, scratch,
until they crack and bleed. In the dark, a secret is locked away like a precious treasure. No one can hear the tap, tap, tapping it makes. In the dark a little boy with scabs on his knees sits very quietly. Very quietly. Very quietly. In the dark, dirty things crawl, and hiss and strike. In the dark, pigs squeal. Only they're not pigs. In the dark, you can see forever. in the dark, blood sprays, making fine art across the asphalt. The city is lousy with pollocks and de koonings. The city is a museum.
In Crown Point, there's a picasso. In the Bowery, there's a Matisse. Admission is free. If you're willing to pay the price... He doesn't wipe his nose. He doesn't lick his crack lips or swallow to moisten the desert in his throat. He doesn't whimper though his bones ache and his empty stomach is clenched tighter than a boxer's fist. In the dark, any sound will bring monsters...
In the dark, no one can hear the tap, tap, tapping of raw and bloody fingertips. In the dark, your heart sounds like it's coming for you. In the dark, a man named Johnnie Barns chokes and gurgles on his own vomit. his body convulses and his eyes twitch. He soils himself and begs for mercy. Yet still, he is not yet afraid enough to talk. He must be taught real fear. Fear of the dark.
In the dark, a little boy with scabs on his knees lays his tired on the floor for the last time. In the dark, the clock tick, tick, ticks slower than a pounding heartbeat. In the dark, a man named Johnnie Barns tries to be quiet. Very quiet. Very quiet.
In the dark, a lock shatters.
They say there's nothing there in the dark that isn't there in the light. It isn't true.
In the dark, there is fear.
In the dark, there are monsters
In the dark, a secret is set free. And address offered up in the vain hope of salvation. But in the dark, there is no light. No mercy. No hope.
In the dark...
A city screams."
- Batman: City of Crime