The Art of Storytelling and the Storytelling of Art

by Ruminate Magazine July 25, 2012

[A]s evidenced by Ernest Hemingway's famous six-word story, "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn," a good story is not dependent on the number of words that it takes to tell it. I was reminded of this fact last week when my bookclub, which I love and about which I have written often, met to discuss three graphic novels. Having already explored a variety of storytelling techniques, from the jumping-around-in-time-and-perspective style of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, to that of Rebecca Skloot, the journalist whose life becomes intertwined with the story she's telling in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the bookclub was open to trying yet another mode of storytelling. [caption id="attachment_4764" align="alignright" width="300" caption="from "Petrograd" by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook. Oni Press, 2011."][/caption] My husband (a comic book aficionado) chose three graphic novels for the group to read and discuss. The first, Petrograd (by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook), is the most similar to a standard novel. Text-heavy, plot-heavy, and longer, it tells the fictionalized story of the assassination of Rasputin. It relies less on the art to tell the story than do the other two books. Still, the art is striking. The images are done in black ink with a rust watercolor background. The mostly black-and-white style fits well with the bleak setting of Russia in the era of Rasputin. Despite the heavy blocks of dialogue, however, the most powerful moments of the book are the pages without a single word on them. As the body of Rasputin sinks through the ice of a frozen river and down toward the ink-black lower half of the panel, the reader is filled with a dread that would be difficult to convey in words alone. [caption id="attachment_4762" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="from "Blacksad" by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido. Dark Horse Comics, 2010."][/caption] The second book is a stark contrast to the first. Blacksad (by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido) is a noir-ish mystery series where the characters are humans depicted as animals (as opposed to animals doing human-like things). The characters are done incredibly well, and the technique of making them into various animals tells the reader so much about them in an instant. For example, if a character is portrayed as a cat rather than a mole, what does it say about their personality? So much is communicated through the art in this book, and the art is downright stunning. The story is a pretty straightforward noir detective tale, but the art really takes it to another level. I could simply watch the characters interact for hours. [caption id="attachment_4763" align="alignright" width="287" caption="from "I Kill Giants" by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura. Image Comics, 2009."][/caption] The third and final book we read was I Kill Giants (by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura). The story blends fantasy and a harsh reality through the life of a 12-year-old-girl named Barbara. The story is excellent, the dialogue is crisp and witty, and the ending brought me to tears. The art is manga-esque, while being incredibly nuanced in its capturing of the characters’ emotions. This was my favorite book for how well the story and art complemented each other and came together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Though the story is wonderful, it is again the case that among the most powerful moments is a scene that did not have a single word (I can’t describe the scene for fear of ruining the ending, but trust me—it’s great). I am blown away by these stories. What really amazes me is that these aren’t simply novels that are depicted graphically. The art is inseparable from the story, and at times, the art IS the story. At Ruminate, we are obsessed with stories (for proof just see Issue 23: The Stories We Tell). We love the stories told in twenty pages and in a single image or metaphor. I am always crazy about the art that appears in Ruminate’s pages, but my personal favorite has to be the “Heavy Man” series by Scott Kolbo in Issue 14: With Earnest Jest. The series is very powerful and, like the Hemingway story, captures an entire narrative in a single moment. It’s true—some pictures really are worth a thousand words (or more), which makes me even more excited to see the winners of Ruminate’s upcoming Kalos Foundation Visual Art Prize (now in its second year). If you are an artist telling your stories visually, I encourage you to submit your work (the deadline is August 15th). And if you’re like me and simply love soaking in such stories, I encourage you to stick around and check out the results. In the meantime, I’ve got some more graphic novels to read... by Stephanie Lovegrove


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