Durham News: Opinion

Comics – They’re not just for kids

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to good stories.

It didn’t matter whether they were in kid-friendly biographies about Louis Armstrong or poet Phillis Wheatley, black legends who inspired me by creating enduring art against incredible odds.

Or if I found them in my go-to novels, including Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and Gloria Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place,” as I came of age and began writing stories of my own.

So it’s interesting that lately, comics are among the places where I’m finding stories that I’m excited to read. Of course, instead of comics, I could call most of them graphic novels, a term that some critics, academics and categorizers seem to have embraced more than comics artists themselves.

I’ve certainly applied it to two brilliant books I’ve had in my personal collection for a while: Art Speigelman’s “Maus” and “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi.

But terminology aside, my recent introduction to contemporary comic book artists like Nate Powell, in town last month for the Durham County Library’s second annual Comics Fest, and Amy Godfrey, a children’s librarian at the Southwest Regional Library, has me making intriguing new connections between visually driven comics and the text-focused fiction I love to read and write.

In his Comics Fest presentation, “Surrealism and Civil Rights: The Graphic Novels of Nate Powell,” the Bloomington, Ind.-based cartoonist talked about getting into comics in a pretty typical way.

It was the early ’80s, and TV shows featured Wonder Woman, the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman he said. (I’m older than Powell, who’s 34, but I’ll admit that my childhood Wonder Woman/comics obsession was sparked by the TV series, with Lynda Carter in the title role.)

He discussed his evolution from a Southern kid from a military family, who started drawing comics at 11, to an award-winning author of acclaimed graphic novels including “Any Empire” and “Swallow Me Whole.” But Powell also reflected on some of what he’s learned about his form along the way.

When he said, “one of the most important lessons in comics is show, don’t tell,” he was speaking language I know well, both as a writer and a teacher.

And his emphasis on first telling a story in a “nonverbal way” reminded me that even when the text is the thing, the goal is to create pictures with words – to craft scenes rich with imagery and put the reader right in the middle of the moment.

Godfrey, one of the Comics Fest organizers, made the decision to invite Powell for the two-day event at Southwest Regional. She leads comics workshops for kids at the library and helps maintain a blog where their fledgling comics are posted.

When it comes to her own art, Godfrey’s focus so far has been on mini-comics and her blog, the Lyrabrary. She hopes to create a longer work at some point. But don’t expect her to call her book, whenever she produces it, a graphic novel.

“To me, they’re all comics . . . I think they all have value,” she said, adding that she finds the term “both demeaning and a little confusing to the (comic) books that aren’t considered graphic novels.”

There’s also no mistaking the differences in the styles of the two artists.

I’m captivated by the storytelling power in Powell’s visually arresting drawings, detailed and cinematic in scope.

In contrast, Godfrey’s art pulls me in with how it elevates and humanizes stick figures, primarily two characters that represent her and her husband, Kirill Tolpygo.

Where Powell and Godfrey intersect is in their use of comics to tell personal, even autobiographical stories. For Powell, “Any Empire” is one of those stories, exploring not only some of his boyhood obsessions and experiences, but also nationalist power, identity, and the “growing acceptability of war” in our culture.

In her comics, Godfrey, 29, has been most interested in “capturing small moments” from her daily life. For me, they work like snapshots, providing telling glimpses into the closeness of her relationship with her husband, her other life as an aerialist, and her creative process overall.

As Powell suggested, comics for adults can be masterful at helping us make sense of the mysteries of our childhoods, which is certainly territory I seek to mine in my fiction.

And as both he and Godfrey pointed out, comics also can be amazing vehicles for expressing complex emotions – in a very accessible way.

I haven’t really drawn anything since high school, so I don’t have any plans to write any comics of my own. At least not any time soon.

But if my fiction is as emotionally resonant, approachable, honest and inventive as the stories I’ve been reading from Powell and Godfrey, I’m definitely doing something right.