Tuesday, October 14, 2008


"Graphic Novel" is a functionally useless term. I heard it described this weekend as a very useful term for marketing, and that is nothing to sneeze at. The smallest confusion over genre, medium or labeling can cause even the best book to fall through the cracks - surely one of the culprits behind Minx's demise, among others. Having any kind of umbrella label to help booksellers help sell the books is, by definition, a good thing.

But for any other purpose besides the utilitarian - be it practical, aesthetic, critical or ontological - it's useless. Eddie Campbell is, in this respect at least, absolutely correct.

I have always avoided the use of the term. This has been problematic, as it means I am left without a term to easily describe an increasingly common phenomenon. But I guess I'm of the "old school": I remember a day not so long ago when "graphic novel" as a term was a joke, an awkward portmanteau designed to mask what could only - at the time - have been an embarrassing social admission. "I don't read comics, I read graphic novels." It was, frankly, pretentious in the worst way, in that it attempted to graft some kind of cultural respectability onto something that wasn't respectable, didn't particularly need to be respectable and which, for many readers, was only an issue of personal insecurity. Saying "graphic novel" extended a pretense of deception, an ostentatious display of faux refinement used by many to cover up the fact that six Batman comics compiled between two softcovers is still a Batman comic.

Will Eisner used the term, so it certainly has pedigree - tons of pedigree. Lots of smart people have spilt a lot of ink over the meaning and history of the term. The only things the term doesn't have are meaning and purpose.

What does it mean? A novel told in pictures? That leaves out too much, and also lets too much in. The term was pretty much dead the moment Marvel decided to stamp "Graphic Novel" all over a series of large format one-shots which aped the European model in form if not - certainly not - in content. Certainly if you use the term there is no reason why The Death of Captain Marvel isn't a graphic novel and A Contract With God is, for much the same reason that no sane person would actively argue that a mass market paperback adaptation of Star Trek III wasn't by strict definition a novel. Definitions of form must remain neutral on the subject of content - but by design the term "graphic novel" has carried an implication of heightened subject matter. The entire reason why the term exists was to separate the practice of "serious" cartooning from the rest of the crap clogging up the newsstands, head shops and newspaper pages. That it was almost immediately co-opted by the juvenilia which it was designed to circumvent makes its adoption, in this respect, a singular failure.

What is it's purpose? Well, that it exists enables books which would otherwise have no recognizable category to be marketed and sold with greater ease. That can't be dismissed. But otherwise it is purposeless, for all the reasons enumerated above, but mostly in that it is indefinably broad term meant mainly to cover up perceived insecurities.

Is Watchmen a graphic novel? Most people would agree that it is, despite it's serialized origin and superhero subject matter. Is A Contract With God? Well, it's a collection of short stories, but could probably be considered a novel in the same respect that short story cycles such Winesburg, OH and Dubliners are considered to be a kind of novel. But once you leave the realm of books that consciously reach for effects comparable to those of the prose novel in terms of length, breadth and narrative scope, what do you use? Is Maggots a graphic novel? Really, you'd have a hard time making the argument that it resembles anything the world of prose novels has ever produced, possibly excepting outliers such as Naked Lunch. And yet Maggots isn't an outlier - the form is wide enough to encompass any number of artists stretching the medium in every conceivable fashion. Lots of books are released every year that are as strikingly bizarre in form, execution, subject matter, or all. Maggots is far, far closer to an artists' monograph than a novel, and yet there is still a narrative element that sets it apart from merely a catalog.

Is the comics adaptation of the 9/11 report a "graphic novel"? It says in the title that it's a graphic "adaptation", which is good in as much as it's accurate. But the book itself is nonfiction, so the term "novel" can't really be used without a sizeable stretch. Is The Complete Terry And The Pirates Volume 4: 1941-1942 a graphic novel? Well, obviously not, I hear you say - but what about the fact that, when read in huge chunks, Caniff's strip approaches a depth and breadth whose only ready comparison is in fact the prose novel? Weren't Dickens' novels - and, in fact, many of the great novels of the 19th century - serialized and only compiled after the fact? Is Reads a graphic novel? Is The Essential Spider-Man a graphic novel? Is Palestine? Is The Great Outdoor Fight?

It is inescapable that the term "graphic novel" will remain in common usage for a long time, now that it is firmly ensconced in the popular imagination. In the end it accomplished exactly what it was created to do: created an artificial distinction which would allow publishers to market otherwise risky titles, cartoonists to describe their occupation without embarrassment at cocktail parties, and fans to grasp at a social significance for their previously disreputable hobby. But the fact is that the books have only ever been as disreputable as their quality. if it can find an audience, a good book will likely win the day on its own merits, regardless of label. A pretentious label won't improve a bad book's content.

But there is good news! We just happen to have in our possession a very useful term that can be used to encompass every single work above mentioned, and many more besides; which sets aside all question of genre or quality in favor of neutral (albeit not uncontroversial) questions of form; which has the added bonus of being almost universally recognized and accepted by readers as young as two or three years of age.

What is this magic word?


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