Comic art aids novelist’s story telling

Once you get your feet wet in the publishing business, the possibilities are endless. For Audrey Niffenegger, one genre is not enough. The author penned The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, both of which show her ability to craft haunting moods and a knack for compelling imagery.

Sequential art · The Night Bookmobile is Audrey Niffenegger’s first foray in comics, having written prose such as The Time Traveler’s Wife. - Photo courtesy of Abrams ComicArts

But her latest work comes in the form of a graphic novel that she illustrated herself. Instead of creating intricate images from the lacing of words, The Night Bookmobile allows Niffenegger to put pen to paper and draw the surroundings of her story along with crafting the idea itself.

Although it is intended for an audience just shy of its preteen years, the book has a seemingly adult narrative. It provides a deep philosophical journey into the complexities of the mind but also showcases a strange semi-lucid mindset in which the narrator is perhaps a little loony.

The graphic novel begins at four in the morning; after yet another argument with her boyfriend, the protagonist Alexandra stumbles upon a Winnebago filled with all the books she’s read in her life. From there, the story takes an unexpectedly despondent turn.

Niffenegger’s greatest success is the development Alexandra, who can now come to life in illustrations.

The young woman obviously leads an unstable life, detailing her dysfunctional relationship at the beginning of the novel; this instability only continues as Niffenneger shows her obsessing and even crying over the night bookmobile.

Niffenneger’s drawing skills are not remarkable — in fact, the pictures border on slightly crude, though to the point, ensconcing the reader in the story just as her novels do. The tale itself was originally published as short fiction in Zoetrope All-Story in 2004, based on a dream Niffenegger had years ago.

Despite the ethereal inspiration for the graphic novel, she does not use fantastical, other-worldly images — the illustrations remain ordinary as the story creates a complex journey.

The characters and surroundings are relatively normal, which lets the story stand alone. This draws attention away from the illustrations, which serve mostly to accentuate the story rather than give it form.

In true graphic novel fashion, Niffenegger experiments with the reader’s point of view, juxtaposing images to show two characters at the same time, focusing on facial expressions and creating a scene with small images surrounding one another. The narrative unfurls in pale yellow boxes sometimes superimposed on the images while other scenes show a simpler white text.

Interestingly enough, the author uses her words to supplement the images as well. An ordinary scene of the Winnebago leaving becomes a fascinating image with her description of it as “a large egg sliding slowly through the body of a snake.”

Despite Niffennegger’s investment in illustration, the author still conjures up the power of the written word to express what perhaps cannot be illustrated. At times, the words help bolster the images, at other times the reader’s imagination takes over with help from the prose.

Despite some confusion over whether Niffenegger believes more in the power of the written word or of the image, the story itself remains cleverly mystical. The premise is simple and lacks much action but somehow manages to keep the reader enthralled. It is a dreary account of what at first seems a fantastical journey.

It is the outlining of Alexandra’s dream world in the midst of reality — and as the author puts it, a haunting tale about something that seems far from dangerous.

In her afterword, Niffenneger describes the story as “a cautionary tale of the seductions of the written word.”

Though at times overly simple, the stark images within the book lend the story its eerie mood. The graphic novel hardly offers any complex images for the readers to find themselves spellbound. What keeps everything together is the manner in which the simple images allow the reader to follow Alexandra and wonder what will happen next.

One page shows a completely orange background, Alexandra’s head bowed with obvious emotion and a large box of text to the side of her. Niffenegger presents simple drawings yet successfully communicates the subtle emotions of Alexandra.

In the end, the graphic novel offers an engrossing, offbeat story and honest drawings. The story brings a haunting quality to the notion of getting absorbed in books, perfectly summed up in Niffenegger’s afterword.

“What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with perfect light for an afternoon in eternity, reading the perfect book, forever?”