Literary head on a cartoon body

Caricature of Aubrey Beardsley by Max Beerbohm...
Caricature of Aubrey Beardsley by Max Beerbohm (1896), taken from Caricatures of Twenty-five Gentlemen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love art. I love books. I do not love books that tell stories with art.

Comics, cartoons, graphic novels—I can’t read them. It’s not that I’m averse to their subject matter; I love to laugh and I enjoy a dark tale as much as the next reader.

I brought this up with my son, who detests reading novels but has always enjoyed comics and graphic media. When I try to read a graphic novel or a comic, my brain gets—for lack of a better word—antsy. It’s hard to concentrate and I’d rather just not do it. He told me that’s exactly how he feels when faced with a page of text.

I figured there must be something in our brains that makes this so. A Google search on “brain physiology why do some people like graphic novels?” led to Brian Kane’s blog on graphic texts. One of his posts contains a section on the psychology of perception. Jackpot!

Kane’s blog post asks the fascinating question, “So what does the brain ‘see’ when it ‘sees’ a page or panel of sequential art, and how does it derive meaning from this literate art form?” The answer, I’m sure, holds the key to both my difficulty with—and my son’s enjoyment of—the medium.

Kane relates the perception of meaning to several branches of psychology including gestalt and cognitive. My real aha came from his section on neuroscience. Research into the neuroscience of perception is ongoing, with—believe it or not—sub-disciplines such as neuroesthetics. There is evidence of specialized cells in the brain responsible for responding specifically to straight lines!


Thinking about this lends a new dimension to the idea of keeping an open mind. Our minds themselves may limit their own openness to particular types of art and esthetics; neurophysiology may account for the fact that not everyone will get their kicks from a 500-page roman a clef. And the people who do will likely not get much from Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which my kids so loved during their elementary school years, or Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus.

But I have decided to attempt to overcome my neurological deficit. Here and now, I am committing to read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution that has been compared to Maus.

I’m sure wondrous rewards await between its covers if I can just make my antsy brain stay still long enough to discover them.

What about you? Are their types of art that seem to resonate with your brain?

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11 thoughts on “Literary head on a cartoon body

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  1. Let us know how you do with Persepolis. I tried to read it, and had the same reaction you do with “graphic novels” (love that phrase and it’s double meaning). Funny, I used to like Archie comics when I was, um, eight? What happened?


  2. My initial, knee-jerk reaction to the topic of graphic novels was that I haven’t ever read one, because I haven’t enjoyed the ones I’ve picked up and perused. But after following the links you give us I found myself engrossed in Persepolis. Would I be able to read the entire thing??? Who knows. But that brief glimpse on Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ was enough to show me why some of these might appeal, and be worth the time.
    Thanks, Audrey. =)


  3. How very thought-provoking.

    I loved to read books as a kid, and I also read some comic books. I once went on a Superman binge because some friends had a large collection. When we used to go on vacation, my parents would buy us Classics Illustrated comics. Yes, those were “classics” of literature rendered in comic book format. There are still works I feel I know, but have only “read” in that format. Lately, though, when I have picked up a graphic novel, I feel as if there just aren’t enough words in it to carry the story. I have trouble understanding what is supposed to be going on. I have wondered whether I’ve changed or whether the comic books/graphic novels have changed.


    1. It is interesting that your feelings about them have changed. I don’t ever remember reading comics as a kid, thought I did love the illustrated fairy tale books, which had full-page illustrations on separate pages where they would not interfere with (as I saw it) the text.


  4. Very interesting idea here. I used to love comic books and I also loved big thick books filled with words. Maybe that’s why Six Train’s paperback has some photos included. A little picture to break up the text. Thanks for the cool shout out too! 🙂


  5. Interesting. My dad used to buy us a comic book at the drugstore when we were kids. I could pick out any one I wanted. I spent a long time doing it each time, but I don’t think I actually ever read one! My brain, alas, is like your brain, Audrey.


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