Monday, June 21, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: What IS a Graphic Novel?

I think very few people would disagree that the term "graphic novel," almost universally accepted as a broad description of long-form graphic fiction and nonfiction, is an insufficient and unsatisfying term to represent the form. First and most obviously, the use of the word "novel" suggests that graphic works are exclusively fiction- not true at all. As a matter of fact, as I try to show each week, the form is populated by every genre of fiction and nonfiction out there, from family stories, to personal diaries, to journalism, to history, to fictional stories for children, teens and adults in every genre and stories fictional and real that defy genre. And is every story told in pictures a graphic novel? What about works with no story? How do collections of comic strips fit in? Or media tie-ins? Does the term "graphic novel" suggest something lofty and erudite, or does it just make you think of superheroes?

I was thinking about these questions for a couple of reasons. First, I read a review recently of a book (I forget which one) consisting of a collection of comic strips; the reviewer referred to it as a "graphic novel" even though it's one of a series and lacks a conclusion. And I was thinking about my own review policies when it comes to graphic novels. I rarely review collections of comic strips; I do sometimes, but I tend to avoid them for stories created as a single, cohesive unit. I'm also just not interested in most comic books and likewise avoid them in collated form. I never review manga. Manga series can be up to twenty or more volumes long; I don't see the point in reviewing, say, volume five of a series of fifteen, or waiting a year or more while I work through a whole series. (Besides, manga really is a different animal in many ways.) I also won't review media tie-in books, particularly for children. So no Disney books or Prince of Persia here, because I want to concentrate on decent literature and not books created as a part of a larger franchise of products. Now, just because I stay away doesn't mean it doesn't count, but it got me thinking about how I think about graphic novels in general.

Does a collated series of comic books count as a finished work, when it's clearly unfinished? Is there a difference between Peanuts anthologies and a book like Persepolis, which was written as one story from start to finish? And yes, I know Persepolis has a sequel, but a sequel is not the same as a story written and designed to be published in serial form and then collected into a single volume. But then, literature was published serially for many years- literary mainstays like Dickens and Hugo were published serially, as were others. Still, although I've read several Peanuts collections and just about every Calvin and Hobbes book ever published, I can't bring myself to call them "graphic novels". Maybe those are more like graphic anthologies. Books with no story are harder; last year I reviewed a very unusual book called milk teeth, by Julie Morstad. It's an essentially silent collection of sketches and drawings of various kinds with no narrative to tie them together. Yet it's marketed and shelved as a graphic novel. Is it?

I hope we've moved past the point where when one hears the term "graphic novel" and assumes that the book is about superheroes, or for children, or based on comics. I still get comments on almost every Graphic Novel Monday post from someone who says, "I've never read a graphic novel, I thought they were just for kids" and the like- and I'm so glad that you're out there and letting me know, and every time I publish a review I hope that this will be the first one you read, because I love the form so much and think- and know- it has so much potential to enlighten, inform and entertain in a way that can't be matched by conventional writing, if only readers would give it a chance. And the best ones do just that. But at the same time it's such a young medium and artists and writers are still cutting their teeth on it. While they do, readers are also figuring out what they like, what they want and how the form can or can't meet their expectations.

So what should we call them? Break it down by genre? Graphic fiction, graphic nonfiction, graphic journalism, graphic chick lit? Is there a problem with the word "graphic"? Pictorial fiction and nonfiction? Something else? How do you think of graphic novels?