Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Gateway Book

Well, it has finally happened. I did something I kind of promised myself I would never do and buy a comic for my wife. I’m not one to try and convert the masses to something I enjoy because I really can’t stand when people try to tell me about crap I don’t care about. But I took a chance on this one after we watched Watchmen and we had a few chats about the book and the medium in general.

It all started when my wife said that she’s read to Pulitzer Prize winning books and loved them. We were talking about how yet another Canadian book prize was given to another book that neither of us had any desire to read, ever. I think we’re a bit more cynical than most readers what with the excessive English Lit degrees between us. I’m not trying to point out my ability to study, just that in the course of our educations we’ve both been exposed to way too much crap. In fact, my standard joke about CanLit is that it requires a minimum 2 of the following 3 contents – rural setting, sexual abuse (best if it’s incest) and substance abuse (best if it’s alcoholism). So reading prize winners that had nothing to do with these was quite welcome.

I know I’m tarring with a large brush here and that some Pulitzer winners probably fall into my CanLit theory but the whole point of this is that I told her about Maus. She seemed interested and asked about it a few more times, so I ended up buying it for her birthday. After a few months she’s picked it up and is just completely absorbed by the whole thing.

At first she asked how I read comics and I have to admit I didn’t know what she meant. She clarified the question by asking if I looked at the pictures as much as the words. I haven’t really thought about it much which I think comes from having more familiarity with the medium, and that I think of it as more of an organic whole. But really, I probably favour the words then go back and look at the pictures closely if I reread. Although I try to absorb as much as I can from the images because they contain the action.

We discussed how easy it is to read comics and how it’s kind of refreshing to simply be presented with the action and setting rather than excessive description which can be found in some writings. I’m not the biggest fan of minute detail description but I can get absorbed in pretty much anything. I just know if I notice it, I tend to get pulled out of a story so comics kind of helps with that.

What really opened the idea to write a post about this is when she said that what makes the book amazing is the presentation of the characters. It’s easy to forget that this is a true story because you’re reading about cartoon mice and cats. And if it wasn’t for the presentation then this would just blur into the fog of thousands of other books upon the subject. It’s precisely the presentation that makes it unique and unforgettable but provides enough distance from the horror through the cartoon representations for the reader not to feel entirely hammered with a message regardless of the importance of the message.

We briefly talked about how the presentation of the father felt new in that after his experiences he’s still not always the greatest guy. Even if he’s presented as a mouse he’s still a very human character full of human failings despite what should be experiences that make him into something audiences have come to expect. The other point she mentioned was that the mice have incredibly expressive and human hands – I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, but I haven’t read the book in a heck of a long time, so when she’s done I’ll pick it up and have a look.

I have to say, I’m looking forward to talking about this a bit more and I’m wondering what anyone else has found to be a good gateway book? Personally, I think it needs to be something that the reader would actually have an interest in and that’s pretty much it. She had tried to read an issue of Buffy a while back but just found it kind of distracting whereas Maus just seems to be presented right while containing a gripping enough narrative to hold my wife’s attention. I didn’t think something like Watchmen, Fables, The Dark Knight, or Sandman would work because like it or not you kind of need to already have an interest in comics to grasp onto those regular offenders as “gateway” books. (Although Fables might work here if she has any interest to read anything else comics wise).

I don’t really want blanket recommendations or anything but has this type of thing worked for you? Why do you think a particular book worked? Was it random or did you put some effort into matching a request to have a comic with the person’s established interests/temperament?

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