The "graphic novel" (what people of my age used to call a cartoon strip) is achieving more and more respectability these days. It's certainly moving away from being an item solely for children, especially in Japan where its "manga" form is hugely popular with all ages.

That said, I've seen it coming up in a couple of unlikely places in the last month - both opera and Internet technology - and been really impressed by the results. The opera link comes from the Vancouver Opera, who have created a microsite www.operalive.ca where you can learn about the operas they're putting on. They've pretty much blitzed every medium you can think of, so we have video clips of operas and vox pops with audience members, sketches of sets, audio podcasts with commentary and clips, and even an on-line copy of the VO's magazine. But the most eye-catching thing on the site is the set of seven "mangas" - each of them giving the plot of an opera in bright and bold colours (and teenager-friendly language). Undoubtedly, this kind of thing will be deeply offensive to the purists - particularly as the VO have played a little fast and loose with the detailed plot in order to get it into the right language for the medium. As for me, I think it's brilliant: really innovative, and a great way of reaching out to audiences who have placed opera firmly into the "too posh for me" pile where I believe it has no place. It's well documented by education experts that different people have different preferred learning styles - whether aural, visual or textual - and this medium will absolutely work for anyone with a visual memory. Whether you like the graphic style, of course, is a personal thing, and varies a fair bit across the seven examples, even though they're all done by the same team of Fiona Meng (artwork) and Roy Husada (the editor).

By the way, the relevant (and non-obvious) magic is to go to the www.operalive.ca site, press "Read", click on "Manga", and then click on one of the small square pictures.

The second, and somewhat more improbable, place I've come across the medium was when looking at Chrome, Google's new browser. Google chose to use a "comics interpretation of key engineering decisions", in other words to write up all the complicated technical stuff in 40 pages of the same sort of comic-strip format. You can see the original on http://www.google.com/googlebooks/chrome. Once again, I find the format extraordinarily effective. The content isn't any more than a series of bullet points on what the Google team did and why, but the comic-book rendering makes it far easier to read and digest (although non-technologists should steer well clear - it's aimed at an audience that knows how to write software!).

Who knows where all this is going to end up - any bets on a Manga version of the life of Beethoven or the development of musical form?

5th December 2008

Thanks to Vancouver Opera for permission to reprint, and Google for doing the whole thing on a Creative Commons licence