One of my most cherished books is a 19th century edition of MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot. I bought it for $1.00 at the Chicago Public Library when I was a teen-ager and they were selling off their old books.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of George Eliot at all (I thought she was a male author), and no clue about what the novel was about.
I bought it for the simple reason that it was beautiful.
The cover was ornate and a bit battered, but the illustrations inside were amazing—a gorgeous illustration for each of the many chapters reflecting the scenes in the novel.
Most of the illustrations were black ink sketches, but highly detailed and refined, and covered beneath a page of lightweight tracing paper that was sewn into the binding.
But what sold me and urged me to buy the book was the frontispiece illustration opposite the title page—a pastel colored sketch of the main character Dorothea, distraught and perplexed, gazing and holding the hand of her dying husband.
It’s quite an arresting scene and one of the pivotal ones in the novel which of course compelled me to read it more than once.
It’s a great book with or without the illustrations. But I have to say, the pictures were also very captivating and heightened my experience of reading it.
Nineteenth century novels were often printed with well-drawn illustrations (often from woodblocks) for adult novels.
However, over the years that practice became limited to children’s and young adult books.
The argument was that older readers preferred to imagine the characters and their situations in their minds rather than having the artists’ illustrations dictate the way in which everyone and everything appeared in the novel.
Thanks to less expensive printing technology through lasers etc., there has been a major shift towards illustrated novels. However, instead of the pictures scattered inside various chapters of a book, the entire novel is in picture-form.
Actually, it looks more like a large comic book than a novel!
The trend in illustrated books is no doubt influenced by the immense popularity of Japanese manga (graphic novels—graphic referring to illustrations) and comic books in general.
Comic book type novels are still geared for younger readers of course, often in fantasy/sci-fi, or coming-of-age stories, but adults also prefer them to the heavily texted, more traditional novels even with sporadic illustrations.
Perhaps the best of these is the series MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE by Art Spiegelman about his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor in which the Jews and Nazis are depicted as mice and cats.
Another terrific graphic novel is PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD by Marjane Satrapi, about her growing up into adulthood in contemporary Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It later became an excellent animated movie.
These types of books remind me of the comic books I used to read as a kid based on the literary classics I was also reading then like ROBIN HOOD and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER.
Even though I enjoyed those “classic comics,” the illustrations never compared to the novels themselves that were illustrated by a master like N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew Wyeth).
Wyeth’s illustrations in TREASURE ISLAND and ROBINSON CRUSOE were lavish, textured masterpieces that enhanced the stories. They were as memorable and thrilling as the stories wherever they appeared in particular chapters.
To this day, I have to yet to come across anything as brilliant as Wyeth’s illustrations—even in children’s books.
Again, I don’t dislike the contemporary graphic novels with prose in captions rather than as full chapters, but it seems to me the proliferation of these newer comic books is yet another illustration (pun!) of how reading traditional prose is declining.
More and more we are becoming an excessively visually oriented audience.
Rather than making an entire book filled with comic book type illustrations, I wonder if inserting gorgeous drawings here and there in a heavily texted novel would entice readers. Especially the ones who shy away from a book filled with—gasp—words!
If you are writing a novel, have you considered including illustrations? Even a lovely frontispiece scene might entice a new reader to well, read.
Here is a list of the 100 best graphic novels: https://www.npr.org/2017/07/12/533862948/lets-get-graphic-100-favorite-comics-and-graphic-novels
Here is the movie trailer link to Marjane Sartrapi’s 2007 animated film version of PERSEPOLIS: https://youtu.be/3PXHeKuBzPY
For the illustrative works of N.C. Wyeth, check out: http://collections.brandywine.org/ncwcr
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