Jun 21, 2010

Why Not "Graphic Novel"?

Regular readers of this blog may notice that I hardly, if ever, use the term "graphic novel." Here's why.

It's comics. It's called comics, and it was always called comics.

"Graphic novel" was a term Will Eisner made up in the lobby of a publishing house before his meeting with a publisher about his comic A Contract With God, because he was afraid that calling it a "comic" would devalue it for them. After he pitched his idea, the publisher told him "Well, it's still a comic book, but we'll take it."

Watchmen was published as 12 separate comics, and was only collected in book form a year later. Same with most things they call "Graphic novels". Eventually in the 80s the term became such a marketing phenomenon that they were doing things like The Death of Captain Marvel Graphic Novel, which, while excellent, was 65 pages long, or The Killing Joke, which is one of the best Batman/Joker stories ever, but is 48 - FORTY EIGHT - pages long.

Bullshit. If the term "graphic novel" is going to mean anything, the word "novel" must mean as much as the word "graphic". As it is, they're using four syllables instead of two, just because the word "comic" still has that stigma of being for kids. Which is bullshit. That's like people calling them films instead of movies because "movies" is too masses-addled.

It reeks of pretension. "Graphic novels"? Why don't you just call them "Literary pictures", while you're at it? Not only that, but "graphic novel" really just sounds like a novel full of smut and excessive violence. ("It's a novel... and it's graphic.)

It's a term used to sell. That's all it is. And that's why I don't use it. I'm not alone either - some of the best comics creators that I absolutely respect, including Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, don't use it either - all our reasons overlap. In fact, when you hear Art Spiegelman give a speech (which I have, twice), he'll always make a joke to the effect of, "I suppose graphics are respectable, and novels are respectable, so graphic novels are doubly respectable."

That having been said, I do think there are some comics that can rightly be called "graphic novels," such as Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, even if it is just a collection of serialized shorts from them. And I will refer to things such as the Death of Captain Marvel or Top 10: The 49ers as original graphic novels (OGNs) because they were marketed as such (they were written for that particular format), but I will not call this medium the "graphic novel medium," I will not call - as I have heard some people say - one issue of Captain America a "graphic novel" just because he's punching out Hitler on the cover.

It's comics, folks. It's manga in Japan, it's komiks in the Philippines, it's comix in the underground scene. But whatever you do, the term is (in English or in any other language) or is derived from comics. Graphic novel just runs away from the roots of the medium.


Matthew said...

I mostly agree. I called them 'books' more often than not. For me the distinction is the intent of the writers/artists. If it is a serial, it is always a comic book. If the intent was to create either a limited series (less than 12 issues) for the ultimate purpose of making a collection or just straight up making a novel that is a comic book, then I could see the use for graphic novel. I also think it has something to do with how it gets placed in book stores.

Duy Tano said...

Different bookstores place them in different places, interestingly enough. I read somewhere where Maus was consistently in the "New Releases" section because they had no clue where to put it.

Inigo said...

Graphic novel seems to be a appropriate to describe the evolution of the medium. Back then, "comics" was another term for "funnies", right? Because comics were funny then! Then there came serious comics, which is contradictory, technically. If you really want to stick to the root term of the media, then wouldn't it be weird refer to Eisner's work as "funnies?"

BTW, "film" is starting to get obsolete, since we don't use film anymore. "Motion picture" is the correct term yata. Movie is regarded as the informal term for it.

Duy Tano said...

That's a good point, but comics weren't all funny then. Nothing's funny about Burne Hogarth's Tarzan, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant, or even Siegel and Shuster's Superman. The term "comics" was used as an all-purpose catch-all, even if it is a misnomer. But even then, the term "graphic novel" doesn't really work well, considering that the first-ever graphic novel - a Contract With God - wasn't a novel at all, but a collection of short stories. And also, when you say the word "novel," I'm assuming it's not something you can read while in the bathroom. And the term was used as a marketing ploy to the point of death that that rule doesn't apply to most of it. The Killing Joke was marketed as a "graphic novel," and it's 48 pages long. A volume of Ultimate Spider-Man takes around 30 minutes to read. An hour, at most.

It was called "comics" back in the day and the term "graphic novel" was used as a way to get respectability. I don't think anything's wrong with "comics," and I think "graphic novel," at the very least, is just cumbersome and annoying to say.

But yeah, it's all semantics.

Dev said...

Hm, I think the term Graphic Novel is used to distinguish between an adult-themed comic and the others. You'll find them at the back of quite a few publications (ie 'Suggested for Mature Readers') What's more, it's important to distinguish since even characters originally created for kids now basically live in their grittier avatars. Take the 'The Killing Joke' - I would never let a kid under 14/15 read that one! With apologies to Mr. Moore, that has to be a GN, while 'Batman Adventures' are more kid-based (although I love those comics too - read 'Mad Love' if you haven't already)

In a modern bookstore, comics would mean 'Archie' and 'Scrooge McDuck' while everything else (including single issues of adult-themed comics) belongs in the graphic novel section.

Duy Tano said...

Art Spiegelman refers to his stuff as "comix," Alan Moore as "comics," and I would hardly count "The Revenge of the Living Monolith" as an "adult-themed" comics, although it is explicitly labeled as such.

Duy Tano said...

And Eisner only referred to his stuff as a graphic novel because he was afraid calling it a comic would make the publisher veto it; the publisher then said "It's a comic, but we're happy to print it."

Tech-Interest said...

You should check out Jim Steranko's CHANDLER (Fiction Illustrated #3) to see the real first Graphic Novel. Just Text an pictures, no word balloons, it is, feels and looks like a illustrated novel, a graphic novel.

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