Robot 6

Ben Bova disses graphic novels

Plenty complex: Darwyn Cooke's Hunter adaptation

Plenty complex: Darwyn Cooke's Hunter adaptations

Science fiction novelist Ben Bova wrote a column on literacy for the Naples Daily News, in which he wonders if literacy itself is in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Bova decries dropping literacy rates (without presenting any evidence that such a thing is happening) and discusses the shrinking space that bookstores give to traditional books, as audiobooks and graphic novels take over.

Take the idea of graphic novels. Essentially, these are comic books for adults. Some of the works are quite striking and even powerful. But War and Peace they’re not. They’re not even Valley of the Dolls.

It’s impossible to reproduce a novel’s deep characterizations and nuances of plot development in a comic book format. I’ve had a couple of my short stories done in graphic style and, while I’m pleased with the results, I don’t see how a novel could be done that way — except by boiling down the novel to a few incidents and characters and tossing away almost all of the depth and plot development.

There are two things wrong with this statement. One is that graphic novels must be based on print novels and the other is that they can’t have depth or literary quality of their own. My long list of counterexamples (drawn straight off the top of my head) would include Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Richard Parker’s Hunter novels (which have plenty of depth and characterization and layer onto that a rich visual evocation of urban life in the 1950s); Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld; the complex and fascinating Logicomix; and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the book that really got this category started.

(Hat tip: Von Allan.)

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24 Comments

Is he the cow-person that raised Quicksilver and the Scarlet WItch?

Looks like Old Man Bova forgot to take his medicine….again.

Ben Bova, You Ignorant Slut.

He obviously has no clue what goes into a really good comic book. Hand that man an Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman script, let him see how robust they are and how they go into great detail about what should be seen on the page.

You can’t convince an old fart that his old fart thoughts are not Be All, End All, so y’know, who cares what this old far thinks?

Bova is also working off a commonly-but-wrongly believed idea: That literacy rates are falling.

I’m currently taking classes to get an additional teaching license in literacy instruction. We just looked at data from the National Assessment of Academic Progress. It shows that literacy rates in the United States have remained constant (and have even risen slightly) since 1976.

Interesting that a science fiction (a genre not exactly respected as high literature) writer would decry another form of literature. AND, he should know that removing high-interest books is not the way to encourage more people to read (and thus get better at it).

Urgh. What an annoying and ignorant comment. It just shows that he doesn’t understand what graphic novels are or how they work. (For one thing, they’re not “comic books for adults.” Comic books can be for adults and graphic novels can be for kids.) But what really bothers me about the comment is the misguided attempt to evaluate two completely different genres on the same terms.

People often do the same thing with film. Because you can fit more words into a novel, they assume that you can’t reach the same level of complexity or characterization in a film. And to justify that argument, they use examples of bad book-to-movie adaptations.

This kind of fixation on words as the only (or the best) way to convey meaning is juvenile. Nobody would criticize opera for not having as many words as a novel. Or a painting for having none! Different mediums operate differently.

The best graphic novels are not intended to be War and Peace…or even Valley of the Dolls. They’re intended to be legitimate Works of Art which succeed or fail on their OWN merits–or lack thereof. Bova even admits that “some of the works are quite striking and even powerful.” So his argument invalidates itself and is clearly based on a pre-existing prejudice against comics and a refusal to admit that they are a legitimate art form in and of themselves.

so… are the Twilight novels considered better writing/story development because they don’t have pictures (other than the movies)? The Godfather wasn’t War in Peace either(nor did the movie include every word of the book)… hmm… I think this guy has more of a problem with the business of adapting anything. It’s too expensive to film every moment Tolkien wrote about the texture on the walls for a film, or the labor involved in drawing it for a comic.
Yeah, this guy is probably just a narccicist(sp) who loves his own work so much that even the idea that someone would DARE abbreviate his literary ramblings (and I’m sure the editors and marketing departments for his publisher did this- some writers even get paid by the word so its in their interests to bloat a story).
With that kind of logic regarding GN’s, he should hate film, photography, the internet and any non-fiction writing too.
great article Brigid!

Gunna gaffer tape a copy of MAUS to a copy of ASTERIOS POLYP and shove ‘em up his arse.

He’s probably still pissed off Alan Moore nicked the name WATCHMEN from him.

Also: his books are shite.

Steven R. Stahl

August 17, 2010 at 10:43 am

Bova’s history as a writer of hard SF probably influenced his judgment. Hard SF celebrates concepts — taking scientific facts and recent developments and extrapolating in logical ways; building a fictional world or system of worlds and making the cosmology convincing; creating aliens and actually making them inhuman, not humans with different skin colors or neuroses. The intellectual dimensions of hard SF make artwork unnecessary, if not entirely irrelevant to an appreciation of the writer’s work. The Niven & Pournelle novel, Escape from Hell is a blend of SF and fantasy that one might think would benefit from artwork, might even require it, but the novel doesn’t. The focus is on the characters, the plot, and the world-building aspects of Hell. Artwork would detract from that.

It seems to have become popular in some circles to dismiss plots in stories as unimportant, even unnecessary, but being creative and detailed with a story’s plot provides much of the story’s intellectual content. The willingness of comics readers to accept plots that they’ve read hundreds of times (or more) in stories doesn’t mean that the plots have become unimportant; more likely, it means that they demand very little in terms of creativity, originality, and details in a plot, and derive enjoyment from seeing (literally) characters do their familiar things.

Bova might have overgeneralized and underestimated the complexity that particular graphic novels can possess, but artwork doesn’t necessarily provide the elements in storytelling that he considers important.

SRS

Old dude doesn’t know what he’s talking about, news at eleven

DrunkJack, shut up.

You’re as easily confused with the medium as Bova is. You’re in the current, annoying mainstream mindset where the writer is more important than the artist. That is not true. The artist carries the weight of actually conveying the gravits of the story. Moore’s might be dense, while Vaughn’s scripts are incredibly sparse. I was surprised at what guerra was able to do. Comics are visual. Their absorption is completely different than a book, and to give the writers sole credit and attention like you and so man others do is skewing the perception of the medium in just as horrible direction.

I think he’s afraid that we’ll end up like the characters of “Fahrenheit 451″, with no text, only visual icons on a page/screen.
And language itself will become a host of shorthand acronyms.
IMHO, not an unreasonable concept. ;-)

His entire statement seems too inane to take seriously, frankly.

None of the GNs named here match the structural/character intricacies of Dickens or Nabokov (or even Gone with the Wind). Gaiman is great in the context of comic books, but compared to the best novels, even Sandman seems trite and overly simplistic. Comic books linear story-telling/characterizations and only being able to handle one sub-plot (the B story) does still put it under the novel if we are going to compare the best of the best in each form. However, compared to the state of the novel now, “literary” graphic novels do prevail.

Ultimately, someone who can read and think analytically about a novel written at an post-collegiate level can probably with some adjustment read even the most intricate graphic novels/comic books even if they never were acquainted with the genre. But I’m not sure someone with a large “puil” list, who has read a novel since freshman English is going to be able to do the same. It’s one thing to love comic books, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking we are reading something a middle schooler can’t, in terms of reading level. Comic books are mainly for adults just because of the content, not the difficulty.

Dear Mr. Bova;

Step 1: Go read some Chris Ware.

Step 2: Bask in being wrong forever.

Love,
Pat

Ben Bova? You’ve got to be kidding me.

There’s more literary merit in seven pages of Asterios Polyp than his entire bibliography. Hell, there’s more literary merit in 5 pages of “Chew” – at least it has characters with distinct human psychologies, unlike anything in Bova’s psuedoscience-laden tree killers.

Booooooo: I mean, everyone knows that the “harder” something is to read, the more literary merit it has, right? That’s why nobody likes Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha”, after all. It’s too easy to read! Why even bother?

Does he hate movies, too? Movies might have invented the idea of “boiling down the novel to a few incidents and characters and tossing away almost all of the depth and plot development.”

“It’s impossible to reproduce a novel’s deep characterizations and nuances of plot development in a comic book format. ”

And I’ll bet if you take the comics and graphic novels out of bookstores, all that will be left are those wonderful quality books filled with “deep characterizations and nuances.” There certainly won’t be any bad prose books around. Note to self: stay off Ben Bova’s lawn.

Someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about making a fool out of themselves by slagging on something they don’t understand? You know what this means, don’t you? Ben Bova is officially a blogger! Hooray!

I’m not familiar with Ben Bova’s work personally, having never read his books, so it’d be unfair of me to judge their quality. Of course, Mr. Bova probably wouldn’t be making these statements if he was familiar with comics as a medium. Instead, he’s just judging them by stereotype and outward appearance. When I worked in a book store, I subconsciously associated the name “Ben Bova” with our paperback Sci-Fi section, which was a wasteland of cheap, disposable, formulaic genre fiction that featured garish cover art and was capable of making employees roll their eyes with their titles alone. Would it be fair to make rash statements about Ben Bova based on this? No, it probably wouldn’t.

My aren’t we a sensitive bunch this morning!

Personally, I love graphic novels and have found many that are wonderful books, easily refuting Bova’s claim.s Many, not most. Not by a long shot.

Warrabluddyeejit, as they say in my home country

I’ve really tried to read comic books (whatever that means) and it can easily be compared to novels made into movies. Find one person that has ever said a movie is better than the novel it was created after. A comic is a piece of visual entertainment much like a movie. Yes they are great forms of visual entertainment but by no means comparable to even a drought novel and you would know that much like myself if you’ve experienced both. I really hate saying this (because I like graphic novels and comics) but from personal experience I feel like it leaves out what your imagination can create for you. I literally don’t need a picture painted for me. All I need is Bova and many other greats to give my imagination a chance. Thanks Mr. Bova for the many years of personal space exploration that no comic has ever offered me.

@yourdaddy

“I’ve really tried to read comic books (whatever that means) and it can easily be compared to novels made into movies. ”

Again, you’re assuming that comic (or movie) = adaptation of, or replacement for, prose novels. WRONG. All three are exclusive means of storytelling with their own ‘vocabulary’ and ways of expressing ideas. Yes there are things that can be achieved in prose and not pictures, but the reverse is also true.

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