The Superb Cinematic Realism of Graphic Novels

Author Kirsty McLean

The more you become immersed in cinema and graphic novels, the more you notice the symmetry between the two mediums. In fact, when it comes down to it, is there actually that much difference between a filmmaker and a graphic novelist?

The two mediums are often intertwined, comic books have been a consistent source material for films; every few years we see another incarnation of Batman, from the gothic Christopher Nolan version, to Joel Schumacher’s flamboyant take. Since 2016, every character to grace the pages of Marvel’s Avengers has been booted into cinemas, with great box office success.

A perfect example of the symbiotic nature of film and graphic novels is the live action film Sin City. Originally a series of noir graphic novels written by Frank Miller in 1991, Sin City is a collection of short stories taking place in a morally corrupt city. The film adaptation took on the exact mise en scène of the book, yet the look that Miller coined was originally from Film Noir cinema, and inspired by the movies of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. So in this sense, Sin City came full circle, highlighting the dynamic yet interchangeable threads of illustrative work and live action cinema. 

Graphic Novels Become Mainstream

In 2018, Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a Man Booker Prize. This was a huge achievement, not just for Drnaso’s work, but for graphic novels as an art form and in particular how they are perceived by the world of literature.

One of the panel members even stated – 

“Given the changing shape of fiction, it was only a matter of time before a graphic novel was included,”

Sabrina lost to Anna Burn’s Milkman , however the nomination resulted in a much greater awareness of Drnaso’s work and helped to change the common perception of graphic novels. And of course it helped that the movie rights were also snapped up.


Thanks to writers such as Craig Thompson, Posy Simmons, Adrian Tomine and Alison Bechdel, graphic novels are now more likely to be seen as emotive pieces of literature with coinciding pictures; not just there to tell the story, board by board. The pictures help to encapsulate the words and enhance the readers’ understanding of the writer’s world.  This idea was perfectly summarised by Rachel Cooke in the Guardian – “the cartoonists of these works (are) writing about real human life in a flexible visual language that for decades was a medium of puerile adventure pamphlets and daily newspaper gag-administration.”

There have also been a handful of successful films which have incorporated the illustrative aesthetic. Most recently the Amazon series Undone,  in which a young woman has to learn how to control the power of physics and time after a near death car accident. The production filmed the scenes with actors, then using a method called ‘Rotoscoping’, illustrators drew over the frames. With moving skin tones and deep casted shadows across pavements, it adds an entire other dimension to the live action footage, dialling up the angst and inner turmoil of the characters. It also allows for cars to drop off bridges and walls to melt into outer space, without costing the producers thousands of extra pounds in VFX. 

So, as we’re all spending a ton of time on computers, but with no current means of making traditional films, I thought I would take a look at the advantages of turning your temporarily paused filmmaking work into a graphic novel.

The Positives 

You have full creative power, like a film auteur without the reliance of money and or a diligent crew. The sets, cast, lighting and overall tone is down to you, there is no reliance on third parties. You don’t need to get that shot within twenty minutes, for the perfect sunset. You don’t need to cast an actor, put them through hair and make-up and then explain your vision, in the faith they will carry it off. You don’t need to tirelessly search for the perfect location on a tight budget and then have to work out the logistics of catering and travel. 

You can easily bend and augment real life and physics to work with your storytelling. Take for example Frank Sotoro’s Pittsburgh, a memoir of his childhood and parent’s divorce. His colours perfectly articulate memories, augmenting characters and their faces. The city is bare, we see empty buses, shops and rows of houses. The only people in his story are the integral characters to his memories, the only ones the human memories would remember. Now compare this to Michel Gondry’s  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film which shows a man delving into his own memory, to try and forget his ex-girlfriend who broke his heart. We see him running through his childhood and other spaces of his mind, in a way that is somewhat similar to Pittsburgh. Whilst both deal with the unreliable and personal nature of memory, the budget for Eternal Sunshine was $20 million.

Not only are there budgetary advantages, but work is also more likely to stand the test of time  Printing does not go through the same technological advancements as video does on an almost daily basis. Work from R. Crumb in the late sixties, still matches the vibrancy of modern artists.

Animation is of course the medium most closely aligned to the graphic novel, however many of the same issues posed when adapting for live action are also key considerations here too. Inflated budgets, translation of character movement, voice acting and co-operation of multiple departments are just some of the challenges faced when translating from graphic novel to animation.

What Does This Mean?

Our viewing behaviours and assumptions are continuously evolving due to a huge influx of different viewing platforms and outputs. The average viewer now has such a relaxed approach towards cinema, making this is the perfect time for cinema to look at graphic novels as an art form for inspiration, an ideal halfway house between novels and film. Graphic novels are the perfect blend of storytelling and visual imagery; something novels cannot achieve without a reader’s willing imagination, and films can only do with a character voice over. 

My view is that given the home resources many have access to now (Adobe, Procreate, Sketch) and accessible sharing platforms, now would be the time for any aspiring filmmaker to have a go at writing a graphic novel or look into the art of illustration. Even if it’s just to dabble, learning more about the world of graphic novels can only help expand our toolset for cinematic storytelling. 

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