The joy of reading includes the discovery of genres new to you, leading to a wealth of new stories to enjoy. I have just finished reading my first graphic novel – Blood and Valour by Matt Beames (story), Marcus Pullen (art) and Guy Stauber (covers).
This is a retelling of the legends of Sir Bevis of Hampton, Southampton’s mythical hero, and ties in with the Road to Agincourt Project, as it is known Henry V enjoyed the ancient hero’s stories on tapestries. (The first comic book, anyone?! Also gives a whole new meaning to “stitching someone up” – sorry couldn’t resist it.).
Image Credit: All comic book images in this post have been supplied to CFT for previous articles on Sir Bevis.
So how do you review a comic book? The art? The story? Both is the obvious answer but where graphic novels are unique is the art is used to convey much of the story. There is a limit to what you can put in a caption bubble (!) so the pictures must do a lot of the work. For example, there is one picture where Sir Bevis (as a boy) is confronted by three armed men. The caption only reads “Very bad idea” from one of the men to our hero but the sense of menace comes out through the way the men are drawn (so no need for words to express that).
Writing flash fiction means I need to write tight so every word counts. The same applies to graphic novel writing. Too much story in a caption bubble will kill the story. Yet you need enough to keep the story moving and to reveal what pictures alone cannot. Where the pictures can convey information, they should. A graphic novel, when well produced, is a feast for the eyes (you take in so much from the images) as well as for the mind.
The artwork in Blood and Valour is stunning with the main story conveyed in black and white with the covers in full colour (and some single and double page spreads also in full colour). The images are a mixture of graphics (including photographic).
As for the story, one thing I love to do when reading other authors is to play the great game of Spot the Influence. I can’t say too much without giving the plot away but Shakespeare would have been inspired by these stories (especially for Hamlet). Then there’s the huntsman’s story from Snow White… For those who like tales of treachery and derring-do, you’ll find plenty of those here too.
The way the characters are drawn helps bring them to life. The appeal of the Sir Bevis stories is obvious – a lot of action, injustices he is clearly destined to put right and all in a time which to us seems remote but for Henry V and his people within a period, relatively speaking, which wasn’t that long ago. For us, it is a fascinating look back at a time which perhaps is not as well remembered as it should be. One problem with the medieval era is it covers a wide time range. (From a studying point of view, it is easier to focus on the Tudors isn’t it?!).
There are plenty of villains for Sir Bevis to overcome even at the beginning of his story as this issue of Blood and Valour shows. In any great story, there must always be someone to cheer on and foes you want to see defeated. It is the classic conflict story arc (and is used in everything including mind-numbing, dreadful soap opera. I make no apologies for that remark incidentally – I loathe soap operas for all sorts of reasons (the fact they are all cheap tawdry dramas being just one!).
I want genuine conflict in stories I read and write (not the type you feel is hyped up to force an emotional reaction out of viewers/readers). Sir Bevis’s story is dramatic and adventurous and his conflicts are external (he has to fight foes) and internal (knowing he should listen to good advice and curb his temper but often failing to do so).
Bevis is a flawed hero but they are the best type. You’ve got to be able to identify with characters to want to carry on reading about them (otherwise you switch off). Heroes with failings, as well as villains with good reasons (to them) to be the way they are, are wonderful hooks to draw readers into the tale.
The book is divided into four sections ending with the young Sir Bevis being forced into exile. The plot is fast moving and the characters are vivid. I liked the young Bevis being keen to learn and correct injustices and older, wiser heads urging him to train, keep quiet and bide his time. In most novels and stories the reader conjures up their own images of what the characters are like. In graphic novels (and manga) the images are there for you but not one seems out of place. Given how much work the images have to do in a book/comic of this type, it is vital that the artwork fits.
I liked the background images too, showing typical dwellings of the era and part of what we would recognise as Southampton’s city walls. I love books and stories that take me into the place where they are set. I have to be able to conjure up their world in my mind’s eye. This is where the graphic novel again has the advantage. The images are there. Do they seem right for the story you’re reading? The answer to that should, of course, be yes. It is important for all forms of story telling there are no false notes or all willingness to suspend disbelief is gone and you have lost your readers.
The amount of work to produce what is a beautiful book in terms of artwork must have been immense. I had not heard of Sir Bevis before I started writing the Road to Agincourt posts for Chandler’s Ford Today and I bet I’m not the only one. The stories deserve to be much better known and the graphic novel strikes me as being a great way to do so. It should also extend the appeal of the stories to a greater age range.
Given Sir Bevis’s stories were on tapestries, a pure text edition of the tales simply wouldn’t be appropriate. Graphic novels should be taken seriously as both literature and art. Blood and Valour carries off both aspects excellently.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.