Graphic novels: ‘The Vampire’s Assistant’

Some parents might think it is bad enough that their children want to read Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak novels about a young teen who must abandon his family when bitten by a vampire.

Some parents might become paler still at the thought of their kids reading such stories in a comic book format.

But many children love scary stories, especially ones tempered by humor. They also love rich illustration.

What fits the bill is the 2009 graphic (visual, not pornographic) novel version of Shan’s first book (published in 2002) in his sad yet funny Cirque series.

Old as rock
One thing that  parents may like about this graphic novel is that it demands focus and strong comprehension skills.

Graphic novels are as old as rock. Some of the first stories told were in the form of pictures painted on cave walls or carved into boulders.

Eventually, pictures were replaced by letters, which formed words and helped readers to create pictures in their minds. The reverse is true when reading a graphic novel. Readers must comprehend the individual pictures and the story they represent, then convert this information into words in their minds.

God’s Man, a tale told in woodcuts
Some of the most compelling novels ever written, such as Lynd Ward’s God’s Man, have relied on highly detailed pictures instead of text to tell their stories.

God’s Man contains no words, only hauntingly dark black-and-white prints made from woodcuts. It depicts the archetypal story of a young artist striking a deal with a mysterious man who, after helping the artist rise to fame, reveals himself to be the Devil. This sends the pious artist on his literal downfall.

Ironically, the glorious yet grim God’s Man was first published 80 years ago, the same week in October as the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. It has been referred to as the “granddaddy” of the modern graphic novel.

Doing evil in order to do good
The Cirque du Freak series, which inspired the 2010 movie The Vampire’s Assistant, poses the even more complicated idea that sometimes we must do evil in order to do good.

In describing the Cirque stories, first it is necessary to get a bit of trivia out of the way. Strangely, the central character is named after the author. The fictional Darren Shan is a “half vampire” who reluctantly becomes the assistant of a full-blooded vampire. He does this in order to save a friend’s life.

To understand the graphic novel, which is based on Shan’s first story in the Cirque series, A Living Nightmare, another bit of trivia is necessary. It is written in traditional manga (Japanese comic book) form with big-eyed characters and the story beginning at what western readers would consider to be the “back” of the book.

The panels on each page must be read from right to left, a skill that is easier for a younger brain that is not as set in its ways.

Comic book literacy
There are plenty of us who dove into piles of comic books to hone our early reading skills. While there is less “Archie” and more “Wolverine” in comics today, they still offer the opportunity for building literacy. (See the video below about the Comic Book Literacy Documentary film project.)

Librarians pay attention to reading trends. That is why so many libraries offered manga workshops for aspiring young artists and storytellers this past year during summer reading programs.

Graphic novels are so popular that many are written for adults. Not all are in the manga format, and not all are appropriate for children.

But some adult graphic novels may be good “eye openers” for teens. An excellent example is the non-fiction A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which tells the story of seven survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

It was written and illustrated by Josh Neufeld, a New Yorker who was in the city on September 11, 2001, when the twin towers fell. Rather than feel helpless when Katrina hit (truly the days of living dread), Neufeld volunteered for a month in New Orleans.

This seems to show that comics, whether on the funny pages or in book-length form, aren’t just for fun anymore.


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