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.

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