Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Graphic Novel: A Brief History and Some Thoughts on a Useful Genre Term

Okay, so following speeches on the state of today's comics industry in my last two posts, "Komiks for Kids" and "Mature, Adult or Merely Sophomoric," I figured I'd spend this post looking at terminology. More specifically, I want us to turn our attention to that ever so fanciful term "graphic novel."

Since sometime in the 90s sometime this term has been running rampant in the field. It has come to pass itself off as a fancier substitute term for "comics" (which, of course, to many carry that stigma of being the domain of children). In Hy Bender's The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman relates the following brief yet telling anecdote:
"Once, while at a party in London, the editor of the literary reviews page of a major newspaper struck up a conversation with me, and we chatted pleasantly until he asked what I did for a living. ‘I write comics,’ I said; and watched the editor’s interest instantly drain away, as if he suddenly realized he was speaking to someone beneath his nose.
Just to be polite, he followed up by inquiring, ‘Oh, yes? Which comics have you written?’ So I mentioned a few titles, which he nodded at perfunctorily; and I concluded, ‘I also did this thing called Sandman.’ At that point he became excited and said, ‘Hang on, I know who you are. You’re Neil Gaiman!’ I admitted that I was. ‘My God, man, you don’t write comics,’ he said. ‘You write graphic novels!’
He meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.
This editor had obviously heard positive things about Sandman; but he was so stuck on the idea that comics are juvenile he couldn’t deal with something good being done as a comic book. He needed to put Sandman it a box to make it respectable."
While Gaiman's anecdote touches upon this apparent need in certain to put some comics in more respectable boxes, there is also a tendency, both among publishers and fans, to overuse the term and apply the more respectable box to more or less the entire medium of comics per default. In the case of the publishers, presumably to reach the more sophisticated non-comics reading audiences. In the case of the overeager fans, more likely to present themselves as slightly more sophisticated and attempt to wash out the nerd/geek stigma (don't get me wrong here, I am a life long comics reader and an advocate of the medium to be sure, but "a rose / By any other name"... and all that).

So, where did the term come from then?

The term first seems to have appeared in print on Richard Corben and John Jakes' Bloodstar (an adaptation of the Robert E. Howard short story "Valley of the Worm"), which was published in 1976 as an original large format volume as opposed to a trade paperback of reprinted material (see "Richard Corben's Bloodstar: A Look Back at the First Graphic Novel"). It is, of course, worth considering that the phenomenon of TPB reprints itself was not as common at the time as it is today, where TPB reprints are commonplace.

However, the term is more oftenly traced back to Will Eisner. As Denis Kitchen puts it, "Eisner created the very first successful graphic novel ---and popularizing the term--- with the publication of his seminal A Contract with God, (1978). The semi-autobiographical 'graphic novel' revolutionized the art form, inspiring countless fellow professionals worldwide to follow" (Denis Kitchen's Eisner biography; see also Andrew D. Arnold's "The Graphic Novel Silver Anniversary"). The key point here being the fact that Eisner's success and use popularised the term in a way that Corben and Jakes' effort obviously did not (at least not in historical hindsight).

During the 1980s Marvel Comics made use of the term by starting a publication line entitled Marvel Graphic Novel, which was, to borrow a phrase from John Wells, an "attempt at emulating European-style graphic novels, with big-name creators, complete-in-one-volume stories, 8.5 x 11 dimensions and fancy paper and printing" (see The Definitive Graphic Novels List). The first book in this publication series was the somewhat famous Jim Starlin piece The Death of Captain Marvel (1982), and it was followed by a number of releases up until 1993 (although more and more sporadically towards the end). DC also followed suit, though to a lesser extent, and it could be argued that Marvel managed to work up the imprint of the Marvel Graphic Novel better than DC did with their equivalent.

Following that, of course, what had originally been reserved for the publication of original comics material directly in book format (though I think some of the Marvel material is debatable in terms of length and ought more aptly be called "graphic novellas") started to cover first all kinds of TPBs (whether reprints of diverse story arcs and limited series or actual original publications) and then further on to cover the entire medium itself. Somewhat erroneously, I would argue, since that merely makes it more fanciful term for "comics."

And the term graphic novel is useful. Make no mistake about that. It is useful as a genre denomination, just as the "novel" it not so subtly leans upon is useful genre terminology in the field of literature. But for the term to be useful, it cannot be the entire medium. It cannot function as the more respectable box used to dress up the old comics for the general public. It needs to be thought of as a genre, and as a genre, it reasonably needs to be novelistic in some sense. Eisner's usage certainly applies to this category, as does quite a bit (if not all) of the Marvel Graphic Novel material, although some of that (due to its length, as mentioned above) might benefit from borrowing the term novella from literature (after all, if there are graphic novels, it would only be logical that there are also graphic novellas, as it were). Each and every TPB reprint, however, does not warrant the use of the terminology.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that the old "publication of original comics material directly in book format" rule need apply. Not at all. The novel itself had its humble beginnings in serial publication, and even rose to prominence in that area in the course of two centuries or so. Let's remember that Dickens, held up by many as one of the greatest novelists of all times, did not write novels as full books in the sense we tend to think of them today, but as serial installments on a weekly basis. That is, something very much comparable to the history of comicbook publication.

However, I would like to reiterate, there does need to be something novelistic about it. There needs to be a single story, albeit perchance multifaceted, in there. Limited series naturally quite easily fall into this slot, and I do consequently not have any problem talking about Camelot 3000, The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen as graphic novels. The same goes for clear novelistic story arcs reprinted in TPB. Most of Neil Gaiman's Sandman amply exemplify this, and is more over an extraordinarily good examples as two of the ten TPBs, Dream Country and Fables & Reflections, so clearly aren't novelistic, but rather serve as the comics equivalent of a short story collection (as many regular TPBs, of course, are wont to be). And yes, the concluding Sandman volume, The Wake, does reside on the borderlines, what with it containing a shorter "long" story (if published as a separate TPB, perhaps more of a graphic novella) and some short stories.

In all cases, however, we are talking about comics. Because if we look at it sanely, consider the term graphic novel useful and wish to keep it as such, we simply must realise that all graphic novels are comics, while far from all comics are graphic novels. The distinction has absolutely nothing to do with quality, it is not a matter of which comics are prestigious enough to go into the "respectable" box. It is simple a matter of genre.

And genre is never in and of itself about quality.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Mature, Adult or Merely Sophomoric

In last week's post, Komiks for Kids, I said that the comics industry, and in particular the Big Two in the US (i.e. Marvel and DC), has moved more and more towards material aimed at mature readers.

Comics as a medium, the argument often goes (sometimes unbeknownst to the general public), has grown up. It is no longer kiddie territory, but now a cultural realm also for adults. What is sad with this reasoning is that it is based on a couple of faulty suppositions:
1) That comics were previously only for kids and as such by default rather unsophisticated.

2) That all that has come after this assumed growing up is in and of itself mature cultural material.

The flaws of these two suppositions are plentiful. Not only were comics not only for kids prior to all of this (the entire notion of comics aimed at readers of all ages goes back quite a bit after all), but the assumption that even something aimed at children exclusively or primarily needs lack sophistication is questionable. At best and to put it mildly.

With regards to the second supposition, I have to say that there is something particularly sad with the term mature being applied to some of this, admittedly adult oriented, material in that its claim to maturity is based on two simple factors: sex & violence. Personally, I would posit that graphic sex and violence (while clearly unsuitable for under-age audiences) do not maturity make. Much of this material rather firmly reveals itself as sophomoric, trying to pass itself off as mature.

It's not that I'm saying that sex and violence cannot be part of mature comics (because I do believe they most certainly can) or that some mature comics using these components (or certain themes or visual elements) might not also be unsuitable to kids. All I'm saying is that there is something very, very wrong when the two major companies in the US comics industry, with a strong history of comics aimed either directly at kids or (perhaps more accurately on many occasions) at All Ages audiences, are publishing comics that you'd seriously hesitate allowing any children you know to read if you just took a look at the cover. And (I hasten to add) in this case and based on my own experience and understanding, the content rarely belie that assumption.

Don't get me wrong, I think there is room for mature themes in comics (and I do mean mature, really), actually both in comics for mature readers and comics for all ages. Because let's face it, there are some pretty mature themes that have been handled in All Ages comics over the years, that are properly mature and have been maturely handled, especially when compared to some of the stuff put out by the sophomoric brigade (and not even that is saying that all things sophomoric in and of themselves are bad, or even bad ideas, merely that we should, perhaps, not leap at the opportunity to praise it as mature).

While I (as stated many times over) do believe that the medium has plenty of room for a full spectrum to exist, I would like to raise this single question: Why ruin fictional worlds that, while certainly not exclusively for children in the first place, should never be exclusively for adults either? Think about it.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Komiks for Kids

Apropos of my previous post on Wayne Osborne's FX, I have been thinking a bit about the preconceived and often mistaken ideas many people seem to have with regards to comics. The most frequent one being the age old notion that comics are for kids. Needless to say, perhaps, I find this a rather brusque way of pushing an entire medium off the table, as it were.

Don't get me wrong. There have been plenty of comics written and drawn specifically aimed at kids. But there has also, for a long time, existed a notion of an audience group entitled All Ages. That is, material neither aimed exclusively at kids nor at adults, but one going for a broader market encompassing both (early Marvel comics at the hands of Stan Lee et al surely refined creating comics for that particular group). And then, of course, there are also an array of comics aimed directly at adults, both in the sense of adult material and material for mature readers (terminology which I'll deal with further in a forthcoming post).

In my mind, there is certainly room for all of these categories in the spectrum and it is sad that there exists such an at least seemingly large group of the general public who still see the medium itself as aimed only at children.

The latter is also somewhat ironic, seeing as how there's been an ongoing trend lately (basically since at least the mid-90s onwards) at the Big Two in the US (i.e. DC and Marvel), both of which have slowly been moving more and more into publishing aimed at mature readers. Very much so, in the sense that I would not easily pick up a mainstream superhero comic for kids I know, without first really, really making sure that the content is appropriate. And more often than not... well, let's just say that you can toss a great number of them out the window as inappropriate just by looking at the covers.

Now, the reasons mostly cited for this move state that the companies follow their readership. There have been a number of long time fans developing over the years (and yes, to certain degrees I am certainly in those numbers), readers who have followed the comics (or, in some cases, at least returned to them) rather than abandoning them when exiting adolescence. This in and of itself is probably not new, but in the wake of the Direct Sales Market's impact on the overall market and a lessened availability of the comics themselves, a younger, new readership simply isn't exposed to comics as easily as once it used to be. Consequently, the readership by and large has tilted, giving way to an older audience, at least part of which has quite different demands vis-a-vis requested material, and the companies respond to the readers whose voices can be heard (i.e. the readers already there).

Much as I can see the gains of having specialised comics stores (speaking as a Swede, I sincerely doubt I'd have made the shift to reading my comics primarily in English if not for the existence of a local comics store selling US imports), the market punishes itself if those outlets are the only ones carrying the material. Because the problem with any specialist store is that it requires that people have a reason to go there in the first place. With some types of merchandise, say tools or the like, needs may arise that force potential users to find the tool store. But there is no such natural need for a comicbook. It needs to be introduced and the interest then nurtured in some sense. Much like reading and literature.

And there is the insanity of it all, because if the companies don't tend, not only to the dwindling audience they have, but also to the potential new audiences out there, they will end up losing it all.

It seems fairly clear that people who read comics when they were young are more likely to pick up comics as adults than those to whom the language of the medium is as foreign as... well, a foreign language. And it is well known that we learn languages more easily when we're young.

I maintain, this should not have to be an either-or situation. As I stated early on in this post, there is room for all the categories under discussion, but it is ever so important that the stuff specifically aimed at (or at the very least inclusive of) kids cannot be taken away. Such a move is counter-productive.

Children's literature has not been pushed out to make room for literature (for adults). Rather children's literature is what we use to help children, not only learn how to read, but to appreciate reading and reading for its own sake. It is what publishers and the literary market use to get new readers hooked on the concept of books itself, to secure new generations of readers.

Comics being a medium in its own right requires the same introduction. Comics must be readily available to children, both as an additional useful tool in the quest to acquire reading skills and as a way of introducing not only the medium itself but its language of sequential images and text as well. Because if that isn't done, where is the next generation of comics readers going to come from?

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Wayne Osborne's FX at IDW: A Comic for All Ages

I first learned of FX over at the John Byrne Forum back in February 2007 (see thread). At the time, however, I did not know of it as FX. All I knew was that a fan, later revealed to be Wayne Osborne, had commissioned Byrne to draw an entire comicbook for him. An exciting prospect in and of itself to many of us at the forum.

In fact, more than a few of the regulars at the JBF felt a genuine anticipation for the project. We kept wondering; would this be made available in any way? Even published?

Throughout the project, Byrne posted occasional sneak peeks; the first one being this non-spoiler page in pencils:

I, for one, was not disappointed.

Eventually, the news came that Osborne had taken a so-called ashcan version of the comicbook to a comics convention, where he (not by any means surprisingly) had gained the interest of a few companies. It was IDW who ended up as the takers and not only would FX be released, it would be a six issue limited series by Osborne and Byrne. Spirits among us early fans in the making were high, I can tell you.

So, work began on FX the series (as opposed to the original commission that would be issue #1 in the series). As work progressed, the forum members were treated to more beautiful sneak peeks. All good. All mouth watering. All leaving at least yours truly wanting more, ever more.

When I eventually had the chance to read the b/w ash can version of what would become issue #1, I was more than delighted. I felt an almost giddy feeling that the project had been inducing me with since that first sneak peek. This first issue, even in b/w and in smaller format read as the comics I grew up on as a kid. And I mean that in the best sense of that phrase. It was ever so clear that this here was a comic which both adults and kids could enjoy, separately or together.

Soon (though hardly soon enough) the comics started hitting the market monthly. There was an annoying delay for me on account of being situated across the pond, so to speak. A delay which wasn't helped by the fact that my local comic shop didn't get a delivery for the second or third issue (memory fails me to the exact details). Since I didn't want to read the series out of sequence, I held out, waiting for the missing issue to turn up, and while it did do so eventually, it wasn't until around issue 5 or even 6. So, frustration and anticipation were both high... and I admit that I did take a few sneak peeks in the issues I had on hand while waiting.

I eventually got to read the rest of the issues though, and I absolutely loved them. The final issue, beautiful as it is, could well have been longer for my taste. There are some points in that issue where the story is moved along a little bit too quickly for my taste. As if Osborne wanted to put in a little bit more than he could fit in there and I can feel that I'd like to see some of that a bit more in depth. But in a day and age where decompressed storytelling makes you feel as if you rarely get much story at all for your entrance fare, well, this is almost a luxury complaint one might argue.

And now there is the TPB (see my review at Goodreads), with very nice cover art by A. J. Jothikumar (whom I think would make an excellent potential artist for some future FX mini-series). I bought this more or less right away when it was released, but I've had it on my shelf for quite some time... until this summer. The volume collects all of the six issues as well as some sketches and character designs by Byrne with comments by Osborne, and there is also an introductory "Cause & FX" page (the intended name for any future letter page), where Osborne presents his ideas behind the project, his inspirations, etc. And the series itself, as my review should make clear, certainly holds up well in this format too.

So what is the future of FX then? Well, word from writer-creator Osborne is there is a second mini-series planned. This time with artist Uko Smith on art duty. As to exactly when this will hit the market, I don't know, but I'll be sure to keep you posted when I do.

And I can still feel that giddy anticipation.

All images and artwork © Wayne Osborne. Published here with the kind permission of Wayne Osborne.

The JBF threads on FX (well most of them at the very least):
2007-02-26, Topic: Commission Drought
2007-04-10, Topic: W.O. Commission Status?
2007-07-17, Topic: FX (Wayne’s Comic) Preview
2007-08-15, Topic: FX is AWESOME!!!
2007-09-27, Topic: FX2 - SneekPeek
2007-11-03, Topic: FX3 - SneekPeek
2007-11-13, Topic: Wayne Osborne says "Merry Christmas!"
2007-12-02, Topic: FX4 - SneekPeek
2007-12-07, Topic: On Drawing FX
2007-12-22, Topic: Frickin’ cool (FX Cover 1)
2007-12-26, Topic: FX4 - Cover
2008-01-04, Topic: FX5 - Sneek Peek
2008-01-11, Topic: Another Glimpse at FX5
2008-01-28, Topic: FX5 Cover Peek
2008-03-18, Topic: FX #1 - in hand and loving it !!
2008-04-10, Topic: FX #2 - in hand and loving it
2008-05-14, Topic: FX #3 - in hand and lovin’ it
2008-06-06, Topic: fx #4 - in hand and lovin’ it
2008-07-01, Topic: FX #5 - in hand and lovin’ it
2008-08-07, Topic: FX # 6
2008-09-05, Topic: FX