Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club: Twilight

For the eleventh installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us read the graphic novel adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, art and adaptation by Young Kim. We’re going to start our discussion by sharing an e-mail exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own. Enjoy!

Anika: I can guess what you are thinking: Why Twilight? First of all, let’s be clear that it was all my idea so if there is any blame to be given, the other Fangirls are innocent. But to answer the question, the polarity of the Twilight phenomenon fascinates me. The books and films and everyone involved with both are so wildly adored and so widely reviled. It seems everyone has an opinion about sparkling vampires and morose werewolves whether they’ve read any of it or not. And an even stronger opinion about the sullen girl in the middle of it.

Twilight Volume I

Bella, and the critical reception to her, also fascinates me. I often jump to her defense, or more correctly to the defense of young women who like or relate to her. So. That’s where I come from. I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies and I’d read both volumes of the graphic novel before suggesting it for the club. And, maybe because my main complaint against Twilight is how awful Meyer’s writing is, my first impression was how much better the story is in “manga” (actually manhwa, as the artist is Korean) form.

Let’s start there — what were your thoughts going in and how did it measure up once you’d begun?

Caroline: I don’t think it’s a big secret that I like the Twilight books and films quite a bit. I like them with extremely serious reservations, but I do like them, and I’m particularly fond of Bella Swan. However, I must dissent from the idea that the worst thing about Twilight is Meyer’s writing, and that a graphic adaptation is thus bound to be better.

I’m not going to claim any great merit for Meyer’s prose, but what I connect to about the books is the strength of Bella’s voice as a first-person narrator. What I connect to about the movies, incidentally, is Kristen Stewart as an actress. A comic book adaptation doesn’t offer me either of those things (though, yes, this one does reproduce some of Bella’s narration in unfortunate detail, but that isn’t the same as capturing the book’s voice). Basically, this graphic novel is going to rise and fall on the strength of (a) its own craft and (b) the underlying story. And in my opinion, both of those aspects are not great.

Sigrid: I haven’t read the books, so I’m not able to make a comparison between this graphic edition and the novels. I did see the first movie, though, and I felt that the shoujo manga genre — books written specifically for a female 10-to-18-year-old audience — is a natural fit for Twilight. The tics and conventions of shoujo manga — the long, long, loving looks at the pretty-boy male lead, for instance — felt suited to the story.

There’s a thing here about Female Gaze. Shoujo Manga is constructed around the idea that female desire is as real and legitimate as male desire. Bella is clearly an agent in her own story, she has wants and she makes plans and takes actions. She wants Edward, and shoujo manga is well-versed in how to objectify men for a teenage girl’s desire.

All of that being said, I’m not sure this is a good rendering of Twilight. I wanted this to be Mars, and it just wasn’t.

Jennifer: I’ll admit, I was the strongest opponent of this book club choice. I’ve seen the first and third Twilight movies (the first with RiffTrax on, the third for a class on media franchising), but I have had zero interest in reading the books. Part of this is just a genre issue — beyond a brief Anne Rice phase in 9th grade, I’ve never been interested in vampires, or werewolves, or romance novels. But part of my distaste, I’ll admit, comes from what I’ve heard about the series. I’ve read several summaries of the novels and have been horrified by various plot elements and the particular tropes of the central love triangle, and as a result I was completely turned off. I try my best not to mock media I haven’t actually seen or read, so I haven’t been a Twilight “hater” in the way some people are, but I certainly haven’t raised a voice in opposition to that mockery.

That said… I think it’s important to interrogate my own biases, and I’m not asking for any kind of approval for my rejection of this story. In fact, it makes me distinctly uncomfortable to realize that I actively refused to read this graphic novel in public, and was even embarrassed when checking it out of the library. I regularly, and proudly, read superhero comics in public — even superhero comics with truly awful, female-objectifying covers. Why am I defiantly proud of my masculine-coded comics interest but fearful of anyone mistaking me for “the kind of girl who likes Twilight”? Why am I so willing to embrace some flawed media, but not the flawed media that is coded feminine?

All of this is to say that I’m very conflicted about this story, and not proud of my own reactions to it. But in the end all of that turned out to be moot, because the story was entirely secondary in my experience of this graphic novel. The subject matter could have been the most wonderfully appealing thing in the world and it still wouldn’t have worked if it had this lettering, this visual storytelling, this dialogue, and these captions. To be blunt: this book may be, by far, the worst-constructed comic I have ever read. And I have a feeling I’m not alone in that opinion.

Caroline: I ought to speak up for a second and say that I doubt Jennifer feels any more conflicted about hating Twilight than I feel about liking it. This whole phenomenon gets hard to talk about, because this series has been through so many phases of popularity and backlash that it can get confusing what we’re talking about. I have no problem with people hating Twilight, in any media form. There are plenty of reasons to be turned off by the content or the fan response to these books, and nobody has to like them to be a “good” female fan (anymore than somebody has to like shoujo manga or romance novels). As long as you actually know what you’re objecting to — whereas I’ve seen so many criticisms that start with, “I haven’t read this or seen it but somebody told me that. . .”, etc. And for the record, I totally read this series on Kindle so that I never had to hold the covers out in public.

But to step back from that and talk about the book itself, I was also not-too-impressed with the construction. Young Kim can certainly draw, but this adaptation gave me a strong sense of being designed by someone who doesn’t get how comics work. Just for the most glaring example, there is a narration caption describing how characters look right next to a picture of the characters. If a comic book’s narration has to use words to describe what the reader is looking at, there is a problem.

Anika: Caroline’s correct, but as I mentioned in the beginning, I feel a need to say nobody has to dislike them to be a “good” female fan, or female, either. I also want to clarify one of my earlier comments — when I said this was a better medium for the story, I didn’t mean “this is a great way for everybody to read Twilight,” I meant “this is an easier way for me personally to read Twilight.” I already know the story, I know what I like and don’t like about it, and I know what I want out of it. And I wonder if they went into this with the assumption that it would not be the readers’ first encounter with the material? Which is a poor decision but may explain why it comes off as being made without comprehension of the medium.

My own main complaint with the construction of the graphic novel is the lettering. Either the font is too small or the circles are too big but it is not at all a good use of space.

Caroline: Anika has a good point that this probably isn’t meant to be anybody’s introduction to the story of Twilight. (Which is good, I guess, because I’m damned if I could figure out what was happening in any of the scenes involving action or motion, without having read the novel and seen the film.) In that sense, it might not even be fair to critique this as if it was ‘comics’, because it essentially seems to just be an illustrated version of the story.

On the other hand. . .this site is about comics, so I’m not sure how else we’re supposed to critique it. Besides, I mostly kept thinking of it as a missed opportunity. I could easily imagine a graphic adaptation of Twilight that is more effective than the prose version or the film. There’s so much room for imagination in depicting the bright world of the Cullens versus the dim world of Forks, as a way to show what it is about these people that appeals to Bella. As we discussed when we talked about Nana, as well as the manga-inspired Strangers in Paradise, manga gives artists a whole box of tools for portraying hyper real situations, and subjective emotional states. This adaptation basically uses none of them. The narration has to tell us how pretty the Cullens are, because otherwise we’d notice every character in the book is equally pretty, and kind of same-y looking. (The movies have this problem, too, since they’re entirely cast with attractive Hollywood people, but movies have conditioned us mostly to ignore that.)

The one exception I can think of is when Bella is imagining cartoon superheroes when forming a mental image of Edward. This was a fun and witty image, and it gave me a glimpse of what Young Kim probably could have done more of if she’d been given free rein. However, if this article is any indication, the adaptation was micromanaged by Stephenie Meyer. Who, bless her, apparently didn’t want a comic, much less a manga. She wanted an illustration of the novel, with narration. To be fair, that’s probably what her audience wants to read, too. It’s just a shame, because if this was a good comic, it might have been a gateway for a lot of new readers of the medium. As it is, this extremely well-selling book is basically just tie-in merchandise.

Sigrid: I agree that the meta-cultural conversation about the Twlight pop-cult-phenom obscures any examination of an individual instance of that phenom. I agree that the layouts, captions, and fonts are terrible in this particular graphic novel. I also agree that this could have been an amazing translation of the Twilight franchise into another form of media, a form possibly better suited to the story than the movies were.

I would have liked to have seen:

Strong differentiation between character types in the art
Hyper-realized emotions portrayed using the manga and manwha traditions of chibi, blank faces, ferocious scowls
Long, drawn-out pages of no action to show deep feelings and introspection
Fewer captions
Many, many long moments of gazing intently at other people, with halting words indicating extreme emotion

This is one of the things that manga does super-well! I had high hopes, I guess, is what I’m getting at.

Caroline: Great suggestions, and that reinforces my suspicion that the powers behind this book saw “girls’ manga” as a marketing category, rather than an art form with its own conventions.

Jennifer: It’s interesting that you mention Strangers in Paradise and Nana, the two book club selections so far that I’ve had the most negative reaction to. The conventions of shoujo manga/manwha don’t usually appeal to me as a reader. Yet I can absolutely see how they would have improved this text. If this book fails for people who like shoujo AND for people who don’t, something must be seriously wrong.

For me, the main issue was the seeming lack of any kind of effort on the part of the artist (which may, to be fair, be due to the micromanagement). Every establishing shot was a photograph with a few scribbles on top of it. In a scene where Bella is talking about Edward’s “strange behavior” during their first lab session together, he literally does NOTHING in the art — it’s several pages of him just sitting there. It’s not like I’ve never read comics that didn’t quite work effectively (Claremont comics of the 80s are infamous for descriptions in the captions that describe the exact same thing that’s happening in the art), but this was especially bad. And coupled with the lettering — which often covered people’s faces, despite the words being tiny within the balloons! — it was just impossible to follow any of the action, or understand the story.

To be continued: Join us tomorrow for our discussion of story and theme.