Sociologica. V.15 N.1 (2021), 241–263
ISSN 1971-8853

Portraits of Violence. Critical Reflections on the Graphic Novel

Brad EvansUniversity of Bath (United Kingdom)

Professor Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist and writer, whose work specialises on the problem of violence. The author of seventeen books and edited volumes, along with over a hundred academic and media articles, he currently holds a Chair in Political Violence & Aesthetics at the University of Bath, United Kingdom. Throughout 2015–2017, Brad was personally invited to lead a dedicated series for The New York Times (The Stone) on violence. He is currently the lead editor for dedicated section on violence and the arts/critical theory with The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Submitted: 2021-01-18 – Revised version: 2021-03-11 – Accepted: 2021-05-04 – Published: 2021-05-26


This essay provides a critical reflection on the graphic novel. Addressing the pedagogical importance of the genre and it’s wider cultural influences, it also attends to the lessons learned from the production of the Portraits of Violence book. In doing so, it seeks to provide an introduction to the ways graphic novels can enhance critical understanding, especially when dealing with difficult problems such as violence.

Keywords: Violence; Graphic Novel; War; Critical Pedagogy; Portraits.

1 Introduction

Back in the summer of 2014, I engaged in a series of conversations with the Japan based graphic novelist Sean Michael Wilson.1 What began as a virtual discussion concerning the need to rethink about how we educate broader publics on the question of violence, eventually turned into the co-production of a volume called Portraits of Violence: An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking that would later be published by New Internationalist in 2016 (Evans & Wilson, 2016). The book featured ten distinct chapters focusing on the work of canonical thinkers, including Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Paolo Freire and Susan Sontag, amongst others. While I had expected to the book to meet its sales expectations, I was nevertheless very surprised by the international interest in its publication, leading to a number of translations, including German, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. It also went on to receive a prestigious Independent Publishers Award in the graphic novel category. More of a surprise and revealing of my own initial naivety and full lack of appreciation of the genre (including its wide ranging productions from the original to the adaptive), were the positive responses I received about our adaptation from both younger and older adult readership, along my student cohort who continue to draw upon the book even though it’s not required reading.

Before turning to the details of this particular book and to offer some critical reflections, I do think it is important to deal further with some of my own initial misgivings and hesitations, as I believe these are also culturally important and instructive in the project’s development. Could a graphic novel after-all do real justice to any political problem, especially violence? Was there not a danger that in turning it into such an accessible style, the project would end up banalising and making light of deeply important issues? Worse still, could not the comic style actually be complicit in the objectification and insensitivity of victims? Prior to the project I had only a very limited understanding of the genre. It did therefore take me about two months before fully committing to the project. Having spent this time exploring more the history of the graphic novel (see below), what I also learned was how the very presence of the artform has been quite evident, though underappreciated, in more established aesthetic practices. There is in fact a highly agreeable understanding in critical philosophy, which has for some time fully appreciated the power of comedy (the artistic practice through which “the comic” emerges).2 Such insight leads one to appreciate how the very role of the comic and its “characterisations” have been integral to how we have narrated history, broken apart crude essentialisations about human life, while being the vehicle that has allowed us to deal with the mire of existence. Whilst mindful of this, I simply hadn’t made the connection between the philosophy of comedy and the graphic novel. Furthermore, not unrelated, those working in the genre might also stress how the very words comic and comedy are etymologically related to the Greek komos, which associated with the “revels”, designated a time of humour, satyr and subversive transgression. Such festivals reinforced the importance of the komoedia — those literary and theatrical outputs so central to Greek poetics.3

Nevertheless, there was a question that continued to linger when dealing with the interplay between the discursive and the pictorial in the graphic novel style. This concerned whether the format detracted from seriousness of the text and offered a simplified or even superficial mediation of the prose. Could an illustrated version of Othello, for example, really capture the drama and intensity a more literal reading of Shakespeare might offer as the reader is sat alone with its words? Do we not in fact impose a certain image or dictate an impression in the minds of readership when providing artwork, instead of letting the words inspire their own “images of thought”? When growing up, it was almost a truism that the more mature one’s studies, the less images appear in the text. “There are no pictures in this book”, was often used to insist that things in the order of study were now getting serious, hence more attention demanded. While there is admittedly a notable distinction between books that feature artworks in comparison to the illustrated storylines of the graphic novel, even the simplest critical glance shows there’s no neat teleology between childhood books that feature artwork and their gradual disappearance into adulthood. While the very first book I was given was a beautifully produced illustrated version of the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, its prose was hardly lacking in intellectual depth. Indeed, as I went through the period into young adulthood, as Stephen King offered a truly powerful way to stimulate the imagination (in terms of representation how many times would the saying “the film is not as good as the book” be repeated), I still found something truly engaging in books featuring illustrations, especially the interactive “Fighting Fantasy” novels such as Warlock of Firetop Mountain and City of Thieves that featured dark and sinister monochromatic engravings. Later in life, I would return to older classics that still gave so much inspiration, from the tales of Sherlock Holmes such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, which were accompanied by the dramatic artwork of Sidney Paget (originally published in The Strand in 1902), along with what I maintain to be the best book of political theory every written, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, enhanced by John Tenniel’s vivid and captivating imagery. Carroll, for his part, was all too aware of the tensions here: “What is the use of a book”, thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

How much the omission of images from books over time is less about intellectual value and more about economising on production costs for artwork and printing is certainly open to question? What we do know is history is replete and shaped by examples, where the power of the word has been truly enhanced by the power of the image. From the still remarkably vibrant pigmentations of the Codex Amiatinus Bible that is housed in the Laurentian library in Florence, which is widely acknowledged as the oldest surviving bible written in the English language, onto the version of Dante Alighieri’s own komoedia — The Divine Comedy, brought alive by interpretative illustrations of both Sandro Botticelli and later Gustave Doré, so the serious has always been associated with the aesthetic. Indeed, in each of these cases, the image didn’t simply provide artistic re-presentation. They would prove their own original and novel interpretations, which in the case of the Dante, proved just as important in terms of how we learned to imagine hell. We would also see a further brilliant example of this with Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which was accompanied by the outrageously captivating artworks of Aubrey Beardsley.4 Not only was the art in this collaboration equally as important as Wilde’s prose, it would be integral to the subversion of representations concerning gendered norms and, in the process, dramatically altered the direction of the graphic arts. Striking out in a way that is reminiscent to what Frederick Douglass called an “aesthetic force,”5 Aubrey’s revolutionary style would be evidently influential over the likes of Harry Clarke, especially in the haunting illustrations for the 1919 version of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination6 and a 1925 version of Goethe’s Dr Faust.7 It would also be central to what would eventually be called Art Nouveau. To conjure the words of Wilde from an inscription in a copy of Salome he gave to the artist, “For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance”.

Figure 1: Aubrey Beardsley, Artwork for Oscar Wilde’s Salome
Figure 2: Harry Clarke, Cover Art for Dr. Faust
Figure 3: Harry Clarke, Artwork for Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Critics might invariably point out here that the artwork of the likes of Botticelli is a world away from the artwork of the more contemporary comic book genre. This is undoubtedly true. And yet we should not forget that art is ultimately a matter of taste and not a competition. We certainly should also not underestimate the influence or question the integrity of artists who work in this style, whose originality and technical skills are so evident and worthy of our appreciation. Just as there are exceptional and mediocre figurative artists, so there are exceptional and mediocre graphic novel illustrators, whose creations truly enrich the human conditions. The exceptional and pioneering work carried out by Studio Ghibli, which have notably been so influential within the genre, perhaps being the case point. Productions such as Spirited Away show how it’s possible through a harmonious combination of image and narrative to truly speak to different audiences, in a style that is able to traverse generations, while also touching about the most serious issues of tragedy, violence, loss, resistance and love, while affirming the power of the imagination. Though less visually dynamic, what the graphic novel does offer then is a means for the adaptation of a text and giving it over to a certain characterisation. Admittedly more simplified, it does then have merits and value on its own terms. But this is also where the intellectual dangers lie. Many of the criticism of the graphic novel might also be applied to film making or any other form of cultural production that seeks to visualise a discursive narrative. There are good adaptations, and there are bad adaptations. What’s at stake here is not about simply staying true to the original. It is all about igniting the affective, aesthetic and atmospheric registers such that the work takes on a life and distinct quality of its own meaning and purpose. Many studies show how the mind respond to images in ways that open up new pedagogical ways for discovery or what John Berger famously called “ways of seeing” (Berger, 1972). And it is also now widely accepted that in the age of new media technologies, the more effective ways of teaching offer a blend between the textual and the visual.8 It isn’t therefore so much a question about how whether the use of images have value or not in how we navigate the world. It is how they are achieved and brought together in ways that are pedagogically challenging. With these points in mind, I will now provide some critical reflections on my own productive experience with the graphic book format, revisiting the process, and offer some points of guidance for academics and scholars who are considering experimenting with the genre.

2 Researching the Genre

As already noted, part of my initial hesitation with the project was simply being unfamiliar with the graphic novel style. Hence, like all research projects that demand our attention and pedagogical application, before fully committing I began to research more intently about the history of the genre and its district political usefulness. Aside from acknowledging how the comic book and graphic novel industry was evidently commercially successful (though even this I had underappreciated), from the widespread appeal of Marvel to Manga, I was nevertheless already a firm believer in the importance of art and aesthetics in terms of developing the necessary pedagogical tools for critiquing violence. This I believe is an important first step in any collaboration of this kind. Now leaving aside the issues concerning the distinction between the comic book and the graphical novel (largely based on debates concerning maturity of audiences), what my research revealed was how the graphic novel connects to a rich history of illustrative critique, which not only can trace its explicit satirical routes back to the work of the likes of William Hogarth, but in the more serious prose of some the texts already mentioned, offers a genealogy that can arguably be taken back to the artwork of William Blake,9 who engaging with literary classics mastered the mix between art, figuration and fantasy for the purpose of expressing a story on the nature of the human condition. Indeed, the connections between the more recent and highly celebrated graphic novelist Alan Moore (whose works notably include, V for Vendetta and Watchmen) and Blake is often lauded amongst the genre’s critics and writers (Whitson, 2006). The art of fabulation would not then only be an integral part of art and literary history, as philosophically appreciated by Gilles Deleuze and Donna Haraway. It could also be seen as an important precursor to the growing academic interest in the graphic novel from the 1980s onward.10 Evidently in keeping with the much wider cultural tradition of muralism in Mexico that dates back to the revolutionary turn at the beginning of the last Century,11 the power of fabulation would be later given renewed political dynamism in the writings of Subcomandante Marcos and his illustrated conversations with Don Durito the errant knight beetle, who is seen as a Zapatista Don Quixote and a Mexican cousin of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.12