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Graphic Novels for Grown-Ups: “The Hell Courtesan”

There are people out there who still think comics and graphic novels are for kids. Even after all of the Marvel and DC shows, the Netflix Originals, the plethora of Amazon Prime and Hulu. Personally, I don’t understand them. Comics and graphic novels ARE mainstream; it’s mainstream who isn’t ready to admit it yet. And it’s not just super-heroes making this so accessible: visual storytelling works across every genre, from fantasy to sci-fi to horror and history. Personally, I think the visual storytelling always works best in scenes where you want to draw the reader into little details otherwise lost in a sea of descriptive words. That’s when a comic or graphic novel can take you to Hell in a handbasket, with you happily flipping the pages along the way. 

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Some writers can describe a scene in great detail with an extensive vocabulary and passion to match. Some artists can evoke the most emotional babbling from fools, pouring out all of the feelings from something as simple as a smile. What many people fail to realise is how much this depends on the audience. Just like our reading taste can vary, so too can our comprehension styles. We all process and comprehend information in a variety of ways; from instantly visualising a scene to hearing words ‘spoken’ in our heads while we read. I know one minion who could ‘taste’ a scene; great for reading about crisp autumn mornings in a European forest, not so good for murder mysteries. 

For years, comics and graphic novels have been relegated to the ‘easy reading’ pile. The expected audience is usually young children or those looking for simplistic storytelling based in hero-worshipping and fantasy. Clearly, these same critics have never ventured into a comic book store. There will always be shelves of Marvel and DC because they sell well and ‘Jimmy gotta pay the bills’. But take a closer look. Prince of Cats is up there, with its glorious 1980s-style retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Old classics like Archie and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are still going strong, though they are not the same comics your mother read. And Brazen is still my favourite graphic collection showcasing amazing women throughout history. All of these are examples of books being as unique and mature in their content as we are as readers across all of society. These are books aimed squarely at mature minds; this does not mean ‘porn’. It means reading material with more mature and complex concepts. 

Where does this interest come from? Some readers simply want to appreciate visual storytelling, especially with so many talented artists in the industry. Let me use a recent event as an analogy: About a week ago, I was kicked by a horse. Not too serious: the horse was a little grizzly and territorial about HIS laneway, and I walked too close as I tried to move past him. It happens. As did the beautiful bruise I am sporting on the inside of my right knee. 

If I was a talented visual-centric writer, I would be able to describe in great detail the plethora of stormy colours currently sprayed across my leg. It is akin to a volatile hale storm building over a thick bush of blue gums; greens and blues mixing with dark purples and speckles of gold light filtering from underneath. I could probably use more words to really give you the sense of ‘ouch’ but I would be venturing into Tolkien’s territory and then no-one would know what I’m ‘Tolkien’ about. 😉 (Awful writer pun)

Now, if I was a graphic novel artist, not only would have this amazing picture to show you but I would have the luxury of adding finer details to bring out the story. Maybe the outer edges of purple bruising could be drawn in the style of a crazy horse mane, leading down to the horse’s rear legs kicking me at the point of the green explosion. The written word is beautiful for seeding an idea but the artist’s pencil can bring out hidden secrets in any storytelling. 

NSFK: Not Safe for Kids

It would be easy to blame the artwork for my personal NSFK shelf but the maturity of my collection is not based on visuals alone. Yes, I have a separate shelf for MY comics and graphic novels. While I love to share my interests with the spawnlings, not all comics and graphic novels are suitable for kids. Scanning over this particular shelf and the predominant genre is horror, however, it is not limited to the freakiest artwork. 

One of my ultimate favourite graphic novels right now is The Hell Courtesan. Full disclosure: I know the writer personally. And while I would fully trust the spawnlings’ D&D characters in her hands, there is no way I am allowing them to read any of her work. 

Why? Kane specialises in horror. Detailed horror. She feeds off the stuff. For The Hell Courtesan, she partnered with Chris Pitcairn and together they created this intricate world of Japanese mythology and history, interlaced with more demonic secrets than The Haunting of Hill House. It is brilliant and definitely not safe for kids. 

When deciding whether something is safe for the spawnlings, we (being EG Dad and myself as a team) consider more than pictures. Kids aren’t stupid. And anyone who still thinks comics and graphic novels are only for kids usually are the same people who think kids are stupid.

Kids are designed to pick up on more than just literal cues. Most kids do not have the same grasp of language and vocabulary as your average educated adult. When they don’t understand a word, they start searching for clues all around them: visual cues, context, tone, situational awareness. Kids will assess and weigh these factors differently based on their own personal development; some kids are completely oblivious to visual cues while others are numb to emotional expression and tonal differences, thus blocking their minds to sarcastic expression. 

Comics and graphic novels bridge this divide providing plenty of opportunities for readers to piece together information from the whole page. It can help develop literacy skills, allowing writers to play with a more diverse vocabulary in the dialogue while relying on the imagery to support comprehension. Many creators love sneaking in little ‘Easter eggs’, sharing insider knowledge with those paying attention. Kids love this. 

And these same kids can grow into adults who still love this. 

This is where you have to be careful with comics and graphic novels NSFK. Some creators think they are being careful hiding more mature details or concepts into backgrounds scenes. I promise you, the spawnlings can pick it out. Most kids can.

And THIS is why I am a big supporter (and lover) of comics and graphic novels for Grown-Ups. On a shelf. Way up high. Out of spawnling reach. 

GIVEAWAY: The Hell Courtesan

To make my point, I have a copy of The Hell Courtesan to give away to a lucky EG Reader. All you have to do is leave a comment below (including your email contact) telling me your favourite comic or graphic novel and whether it is NSFK. I will then do a lovely little randomiser to determine the winner and send this graphic novel your way. You will get a bonus entry point for any NSFK graphic novel I have NOT heard of (not as hard as you may think). 

Word of Warning: The Hell Courtesan is definitely NSFK. This is a painfully beautiful visual storytelling inspired by Japanese artwork displayed at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2019. Kane was especially enamoured with one particular artwork: Jigoku-dayū by Kawanabe Kyōsai (Meiji era), which in itself is taken from legends of a 15th-century woman dressed in robes decorated with images of Buddhist hells. The legends are particularly focused on the woman’s transformation from vain courtesan to devout saviour. 

Image of Jigoku-dayū by Kawanabe Kyōsai (Meiji era) / courtesy of Art Gallery NSW

This could have easily been like every other history-inspired novel but for Kane’s fascination with the Japanese legend, her attention to demonic details, and the perfect match with Pitcairn’s visual imagery. Kane is not afraid to delve into darker nuances within the story; every character has a smoky shadow wafting around them and Kane brings it out with a deft touch and easy flowing dialogue. Pitcairn is equally talented in sketching the backgrounds, building scenes with shades and lines to guide your eyes across the pages.

When we say NSFK, this applies on a number of levels. Yes, it is a horror-genre with demonic references and ghoulish details in the imagery. There is some scary stuff going on and it is not suitable for young minds to process this level of darkness.

There is also a fair deal of nudity. The story is centred on a beautiful courtesan who is fully aware of how powerful she is. However, the nudity is not simply splattered across every page; it is part of the storytelling and commentary on the value society places on beauty and how we use it to get what we want. Even without the imagery, the storytelling can be rather confronting. 

And then there is the spiritual weightiness of it. One does not change from Hell Courtesan to Buddhist saviour with a quick orgasmic epiphany. There is a book of revelations in everyone’s life and it is not an easy read. As a reader, you may even question whether or not our main protagonist has truly achieved this status. 

The Hell Courtesan is an excellent example of a high-quality graphic novel created for more mature tastes. Reading comics and graphic novels is just as enjoyable as reading a regular novel; it is more dependent on your reading and less about the style of the book. 

Competition has now CLOSED. Congratulations to Jaime! And a great suggestion for more reading (see comment below).

BTW: If you are interested in more graphic novels by N.S. Kane, she currently has a Kickstarter project for Queen Bee. Once again, Kane has dived into historical elements and added her own dark twist, matching up the natural behaviour of a beehive with the political machinations of the French Revolution. Kane has teamed up with Luigi Tereul for seven (7) books, bringing his natural fluidity of movement to the humanised bees.

Head over to Kickstarter here and check it out before it closes: Friday, 6 November, 2020.  

Categories: General Evil Genius

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Evil Genius Mum

Evil Genius Mum
- Taking over the world, one blog post at a time

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