On History: My First Graphic Novel

By | Tuesday, December 08, 2015 Leave a Comment
I've been reading comics as long as I can remember, but it wasn't until 1979 that I read what might be considered my first graphic novel. It was actually a "video novel" that told the Hulk's origin story, as it was shown on the 1978 television show. (Well, technically, it tells the story from the two-hour pilot which aired in late 1977.)

Rather than re-work the story and get a house artist to draw, however, author Roy Thomas took about 150 still images from the show, cropped them vertically to fit a standard TPB format, and added dialogue balloons and caption boxes. Much of the text is lifted directly from Ken Johnson's screenplay. (At least, I believe it's lifted verbatim; I haven't done a line-by-line check of the entire book.)

Even though I was a kid at the time, and I was extremely excited to get the book, there were a few things that struck me as a bit odd, even back then. The actual still images chosen generally made sense and followed what was shown on screen, but some of the specific frames didn't quite work. The actors' expressions wouldn't quite match the dialogue in several cases, and others are blurred from the actors' movements. Looking back on the book now, it seems as if Thomas selected all the images himself. And while it's common to have video software on a computer now that can advance a single frame at a time that would allow you to select the perfect shot, I'm sure Thomas was considerably more limited in what technology he had available to him. I expect he would have had to have watched the show using an early VCR, jotted down the time-stamps of the frames he wanted, and requested those specific images from Universal Television, who produced the series.

Another thing that bugged me was that some of the images were re-used. There's one head-shot of Susan Sullivan, who played Dr. Marks, that's used three times. I get that it might be necessary to do that in some cases because a line of dialogue wasn't accompanied by a usable image, but it was noticeable even by my younger self.

One final thing of note that didn't really bother me back then, but kind of does now, is that all of the text is typeset in Helvetica inside perfectly rigid dialogue balloons that seem to have been created using only two ellipse templates. I'd guess that Thomas presented rough sketches laid out on Xerox copies, and one of Pocket Books' in-house typesetters did the actual work. It's very crude by lettering standards, and certainly was not the work of a professional comic book letterer.

In any event, it's an interesting approach to capitalize on the show's success, despite being a bit removed from the normal comic production process. It highlights, I think, the significance of having everyone involved with a comic being familiar with the creation process. Thomas certainly had more than enough experience crafting great comics by 1979, but he was probably the only one who touched this book that did.
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