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?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. It certainly gives you a lot to think about. I've wondered the same thing, not just about graphic novels, though. Classification is a tricky thing sometimes.

I thought the Peanuts and other comics were considered comic collections. I never would have grouped them with graphic novels.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Thanks for this informative post. To be honest just what people meant when they talked about graphic novels always puzzled me but then I also wonder about what people mean by cozy novels.

Valerie said...

I dislike the term "graphic novel" for two reasons. the first is that the word "graphic" itself can mean describing something in high detail such as "graphic sex" or "graphic violence"; rather than only meaning graphic as in pictorial form.

Secondly, the "novel" part. It seems to me that many graphic novels that I've read or have heard of are not actually novels, but non-fiction or based on non-fiction. For example "Maus" is based on the author's dad's Holocaust experience but there weren't actually cats, rats, and pigs talking/dressing like humans back in those days (or ever).

So it should definitely be broken down in sub-genres!

Zibilee said...

I so love these graphic novel Monday posts because I had never really been exposed to graphic novels before, and now I have a go to place where I can hear all about all different kinds of graphic novels. I have been keeping a list of all the titles you have mentioned that interested me and am planning on doing some shopping soon. I already have bought a couple, and a couple for my kids, but there are some out there that I really want to get my hands on right away! I am particularly thinking of Stitches in this instance.

Marie Cloutier said...

Diaryofaneccentric, exactly- but so many things marketed and touted as graphic novels are collections of comics, so it gets fuzzy.

Petty, I know what you mean! Sometimes these terms that are set to describe a category of books can cause as much confusion as they're meant to clear up!

Valerie, I never thought of that use of "graphic" as related to graphic novels but you're right!

Zibilee, I'm glad that you enjoy the feature :-) You're always such a consistent reader (and commenter) and I really appreciate that. I think STITCHES is wonderful; I don't know how old your kids are but keep in mind it's a little more on the "mature" side. :-)

Andi said...

What to call them is certainly the eternal argument in academia. I wrote my thesis on Fables, by Bill Willingham, and went round and round with my director about what to call them. Fables is an ongoing series, and the 'graphic novels' are just collections of the monthly comics. While my habit is to call them graphic novels, my advisor liked the term "graphic album" which is typically a British term, I think, which refers to a collection of comics.

At the most vague, we can also call any illustrated book which depends on sequence "sequential art." Thanks, Scott McCloud! So, yeah, I don't have any good answer, and I devoted two and a half years of my academic life to the subject.

logankstewart said...

A very intriguing question. I find classification elusive frequently, both outside the graphic novel books as well as within. There's definitely a difference between a graphic novel (say, Blankets) and a comic book collection (say, The Sandman). While Gaiman's masterpiece was a monthly comic book issue, the entire series can read as one long graphic novel to me. And yet, I hesitate to call it so.

I definitely cannot classify Calvin & Hobbes or Peanuts as graphic novels, though. They seem more like collections or anthologies.

Again, an excellent post that's got my mind to thinking.

bermudaonion said...

I do think of graphic novels as fiction, which I'm sure isn't right. I have heard the term graphic memoirs as well.

Bellezza said...

Oh, I hate to be a big baby, but...graphic novels=boring to me. However, I do appreciate how they encourage the boys in my class to pick up a book!

Marie Cloutier said...

Andi, I like "sequential art" but it leaves out the idea of narrative. Oh well, we may not solve this dilemma but it's fun to try!

Logan, exactly. Comics brought together between two covers just don't seem the same to me, even if they are very similar.

Bermuda, that's exactly a big part of the confusion. I wish there were a more precise term that still could be applied generally.

Bellezza, well that probably just means you haven't been reading the right books! :-)

Becca said...

Really great post, Marie. I never thought about how many different forms of graphic novels are really out there. I have not read one yet (smile) but I do want to read Persepolis and Blankets. I just have yet to do so. I can't get into Manga, which I tried first on a recommendation. I didn't like the three I tried.

I don't consider comic strips to be graphic novels, personally. I don't think of comic strips as designed to be in book format. I agree that they are more like collections or anthologies, much like a collection of short stories is not called a novel. Just my thoughts on it!

Anonymous said...

I've swung around to preferring the term "comics" to "graphic novels", just because "graphic novels" does sound like it refers to one particular thing and not, as you say, memoirs, etc. But then with "comics" you run into the issue where you say "a comic memoir" and you mean comics, but it sounds like you mean funny. It's a problem. I'd love there to be a useful word to cover any graphic novel type book.

Jen (Devourer of Books) said...

I'll totally back you on a new name! All of the 'graphic novels' I've read so far are actually memoirs, and I'm never quite sure what to actually call them.