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NYT critic perplexed by narrative device

by  in Comic News Comment

The New York Times doesn’t review a lot of comics, so when they set Tanya Lee Stone loose on Sarah Stewart Taylor and Ben Towle’s Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, that’s news. Stone is the author of a prose biography of Earhart as well as the much-acclaimed historical work Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. But Stone’s major critique of the book is that it mixes fact and fiction without distinguishing between the two.

Taylor also creates a narrator who did not exist — Grace Goodland, a girl reporter following the events for The Trepassey Herald. Other than a few quotations — like the content of a telegram Amelia dictates to a clerk: “Thanks fatherly telegram. No washing necessary. Socks, underwear worn out” — the conversations between her and the other characters seem to be based on research, but largely invented. As an Amelia Earhart fan, I’ve always thought she was exciting enough without any assistance.

Maybe, but graphic novels tell stories, and no matter how interesting the facts may be, the creators need a narrative framework to hang those facts on. Grace Goodland is so obviously a point-of-view character that it’s hard to imagine readers in the target age group (10 to 14, say) thinking that she is a real person. Perhaps the book should have included an fact vs. fiction section in the back, a la The Magic School Bus, but teenage readers would likely find that patronizing. The book is meant to be read as a story, not a biography—the creators limit their scope to a six-day period in Earhart’s life, and they use the character of Grace to show her impact on the women of her time, something that wouldn’t have been possible in a strictly factual presentation. Sometimes fiction can convey more truth than facts, and by presenting Earhart in context, the creators provide readers with an introduction to Earhart and a jumping-off point for those who want to know more.