One of the issues teachers face when trying to integrate graphic novels into the classroom is a lack of general knowledge about the medium. Some interesting research shows that teachers want to use these books but do not know enough about how to read comics in general or how to evaluate graphic novels in particular (see Thomas DeVere Wolsey’s blog).
Although I started this blog with SUMO, I must admit it is not a great book for novice graphic novel readers. On the other hand, Cardboard by Doug TenNapel is a great graphic novel to start your exploration of the media. TenNapel is the author of other works such as Ghostopolis and Power Up (you might see a resemblance between Mike, the father in Cardboard and Hugh the protagonist in Power Up).
What makes Cardboard a great graphic novel for novice readers is something I call alignment. The words and images in graphic novels should support each other and push each other to make a greater whole than either one or the other is capable of on it’s own. When images and words are closely aligned, they support each other without pushing too many boundaries. When the alignment is irregular, disturbed, or even completely disconnected (in works such as V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloydor, or American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang) the works are more complex and difficult to read and understand. For some books,the complexity of story, words, and images makes for genius, but that may not be where you want to start.
One metaphor I have been playing with for understanding how words and pictures work together is that of constructing a house. You can think of the words as the framing of the room. What shape does it take? Are there lots of windows or just a few? Are the ceilings vaulted? The words provide the structure for the story. Then there are the images, which make up the walls, floors, paint, carpet and furniture that give you a sense of what the room should be used for and for whom it was constructed. You can have the frame or the finishes, but you need both to have a room.
Cardboard uses a rich but straightforward palette of warm tans and browns that provide a kind of comfort, even when people and cardboard monsters are at war – but I’m getting ahead of myself and the story.
Mike is a construction worker who is out of work. He’s also a father, a very bad cook, and a widow. He has no job, no wife, no support of any kind but he does have a great kid, Cameron.
The novel begins on Cam’s birthday with Mike realizing he doesn’t have a dollar to his name for a present. He ends up buying a big cardboard box from roadside toy stand for 79 cents (yeah, people in stories actually stop at those stands). Turns out the big cardboard box is full of magic or alien technology or space voodoo and one thing leads to another – including the creation of a cardboard-come-to-life boxer named Bill, Cam’s arch nemesis, Marcus, stealing the technology to make more magic/alien/voodoo cardboard which of course leads to an evil cardboard King Marcus attempting to take over the world, or at least the neighborhood.
The story is fast paced with Good and Evil clearly demarcated with a sprinkling of personal redemption. Best of all everything, literally, works together to solve the problems that come alone (and alive) int eh story. The coherent narrative is a pleasurable experience with just enough creep-factor to keep it from edging into a moralistic contrivance. TenNapel’s drawings are closely aligned with the words giving the reader a good story. The people looks like people, the rats look like rats, but when they combine, they look awesome!TenNapel’s use of a connected color palette full of tans and browns, along with his consistent use of regular paneling that only breaks in times of high stress. There are brilliant/gross touches throughout- such as when Marcus’s best friend Pink Eye defends himself by giving a one eyed cardboard monster an instantaneous and massively nasty case of conjunctivitis. There is references to body functions (including cardboard blood, a beating cardboard heart, and cardboard spit). All of this combines for a solid story where the images and the words support each other.