Graphic: adjective1. relating to visual art, especially involving drawing, engraving, or lettering.“his mature graphic work” 2. giving clear and vividly explicit details.“a graphic account of the riots”

When I “were” a lad, they were called comics, but these days graphic novels are a legit thing, and not just for children. From the questionably literate and insanely popular Dog Man books for first readers by Dav Pilkey, to the 2018 Booker long listed Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, the comic strip as a method of storytelling is alive and well.

Teachers, dyslexia advisors and booksellers are turning to the graphic novel as a way of engaging readers. There’s still some angst around them though; one school librarian wouldn’t stock them because she thought they were ‘rubbish,’ another because the kids stole them.

Blackwater by Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham (Henry Holt & Co, $27.99) is aimed at young adults, or anyone over about 14 years who likes action, romance, and werewolves and that’s most of us, right? Told in chapters alternating between angry High School jock Tony, and shy, unwell Eli, we follow the path of the boys’ burgeoning, unlikely friendship, and their investigation into the creature that’s stalking the local forest. 

Each author narrates and illustrates a chapter in turn, enhancing the characterisation and atmosphere. Tony’s palette is full of oranges and reds packed with a pulsing strength and energy. Eli is contrastingly pale, greens and greys marking his lapses “in and out” of his autoimmune disease. The story is told just as much through facial expressions and the debris in an abandoned cottage as through the speech and thought bubbles.

As adults, we tend to skip over the pictures, but any reader of children’s picture books will tell you how much story is to be gleaned from illustrations. This is a fascinating way to read; having to slow down and examine a page to get the whole story makes it a deep reading experience, one of great value to all readers and vital to those who struggle or who are reluctant.

Another form of graphic is, of course, the shockingly explicit. As we read, our imagination tends to edit out the most uncomfortable parts of a story, something our eyes cannot do when assaulted by the televisual version of Game of Thrones in all its pornographic and violent glory.

This year’s Booker Prize winner, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka relates the history of the Sri Lankan Civil War through the dead eyes of our eponymous hero, a photographer who saw it all, from all sides.

We begin in the afterlife with a second person narrative:

“You wake up with the answer to the questions that everyone asks. The answer is Yes, and the answer is Just Like Here But Worse.”

Maali has seven moons to find out how he ended up in the afterlife, after which he can enter The Light, or will remain in a form of purgatory, haunting the streets of Colombo. He initially chooses to follow a floating garbage bag clad figure who promises him answers and revenge, but who should he trust? The tortured ghosts telling him, ‘Even the afterlife is designed to keep the masses stupid,’ or the ‘helpers’ encouraging him to move on. Who knew the afterlife could be as tricky as the before death?

The complex story of the Tamil and Sinhalese peoples of Sri Lanka is related through historical events such as the 1981 riots in Jaffna to which Maali is witness. He photographs child soldiers, suicide bombers, and Sri Lankan government officials where they shouldn’t be. There seems to be no sense to be made of the war, which is the point. 

As Maali investigates his death, we are introduced to the love of his life, DD, and his best friend Jaki, the agencies he worked for and the garbage men who dispose of bodies. All will become suspects in the mystery of his death.

It’s not all chopped limbs being thrown into Beira Lake though. In life Maali was a lover, a friend, a chronicler of horror because someone had to do it. He’s a beautifully rendered, complex character whose despair at his country’s self-destruction might turn to hope after death. He’s a handsome man who loves beautiful boys, on one hand a wastrel, on the other incredibly clever and brave. 

The violence is graphic, but when it’s done beautifully as this, with the most gruesome pieces off the page (the sounds coming from a cell for example), it’s palatable and necessary, because fiction like this helps us to understand the worst of humanity. 

Whether you choose graphic (1) or graphic (2), a well-chosen book is always going to be enriching.


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