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Graphic Novel

Entry updated 9 April 2015. Tagged: Comics, Theme.

To speak of the graphic novel is to speak of a particular kind of Comic book – usually a book-length work in the comics format published in a non-periodical format – but to do so is to risk applying what has become a marketing term to questions of definition, transforming a practical distinction into what looks superficially like a separate genre. In 2004, in response to the widespread misunderstanding of the implications of the term, the artist and illustrator Eddie Campbell generated a "Graphic Novel Manifesto", [see under links below] in which he argues that the term cannot be defined by adding together the normal meanings of "graphic" and "novel", because the graphic novel is neither specifically graphic nor is it a prose fiction of a certain length. While it clearly descends from the comic book – though its antecedents also include the work of artists like Lynd Ward – the graphic novel is in fact a "movement" rather than a specific format; the term signals an ambition on the part of the creator of a graphic novel to make something whose significance – whether conveyed through physical dimensions, or philosophical scope, or challenging subject matter – extends beyond the Comic book as normally defined.

The graphic novel proper is a self-contained narrative in something like comic-book form. It is not usually, in other words, part of an ongoing series like Fantastic Four (from 1961), though there are exceptions, like Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark (1977 to 2004), a connected series of stories extending to 300 issues and later collected in 16 volumes. It should be noted, too, that many graphic novels are initially serialized episodically in comic-book format, whether or not originally conceived as a single narrative, only subsequently reaching the state which readers tend to recognize as that of a graphic novel; that is, a large (often quarto-sized), usually perfect-bound volume of anywhere from 50 pages on up.

Through the twentieth century, many books have been published which present a fictional tale primarily or solely through a sequence of pictures; the first important artist to become involved in graphic storytelling was probably Frans Masereel (1889-1972), whose nonverbal narratives in woodcut – culminating in Die Stadt (1925; as The City 1988) – vividly encapsulated a 1920s sense of the new century in imagery reminiscent of the medieval Dance of Death. Books like Szegeti Szuts's My War (1931), might also seem to constitute part of a tradition which led directly to the graphic novels of the 1970s, but this is almost certainly misleading. Though many graphic-novel writers and illustrators are clearly aware of various forms of visual narrative – including recent painterly experiments in visual narration like A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (1980) by Tom Phillips (1937-    ) – the graphic novel itself derives from the very specific conventions of the comic, in particular from the extraordinarily sophisticated, cinema-derived narrative techniques which have been developed over the decades by comic-book artists, and which distinguish the comic from all other forms of visual storytelling. Masereel may have collaborated on film work (with directors such as Abel Gance [1889-1981]), but only after having created his novels in terms which were cognate with but which did not borrow directly from the early Cinema. Neither is a figure like Glen Baxter a graphic novelist, as we are using the term. His The Billiard Table Murders: A Gladys Babbington Morton Mystery (1990) is certainly a visual novel; but Baxter is a cartoonist rather than a comic-book artist, and his visual pages are frozen images which highlight and comment upon the narrative action, whereas in a true graphic novel the images carry the action. The difference is as between night and day. An early example, sometimes claimed as the first American graphic novel, is It Rhymes With Lust (1950) by Leslie Waller and the comics writer Arnold Drake.

Though comic-derived tales – like He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel: And Not a Word in it – No Music, Too (1930) by Milt Gross (1895-1953) – were not uncommon from an early date, the term "graphic novel" did not appear until 1976, when it was coined by multiple people all operating independently of each other. The first three books to be self-described as "graphic novels" were: the book-length comics work Bloodstar by Richard Corben and John Jakes; Beyond Time and Again (a collection of underground comics short stories by George Metzger); and Chandler: Red Tide by James Steranko, a combination of text and static images (all 1976). The term was more famously used by Will Eisner (1917-2005) to describe his book A Contract with God (graph 1978), which was itself in fact a collection of linked stories. It entered more common usage with the release of a strangely ill-matched but ambitious trio – Maus (1980-1985 Raw; graph 1987) by Art Spiegelman (1948-    ), Watchmen (1986-1987; graph 1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (books #1-#4 1986; graph 1986) by Frank Miller (see Batman) – which raised the profile of the serious narrative comic book and, in large part because of the low prestige of the comic-book medium, instigated a commercial need for a distinguishing term. ("Adult Comic" had already been taken by comics with explicit sexual content.)

Today, however, many books sold as so-called graphic novels are simply costly collections of entirely routine Superhero tales and the like. Among early titles that, by contrast, deserve to be noticed are Ed the Happy Clown (1986; graph 1989) by Chester Brown, The Magician's Wife (1986; graph 1987) by Jerome Charyn and Francois Boucq, Violent Cases (graph 1987) by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, the various graphic novels serialized in Love and Rockets – including Human Diastrophism (graph 1989) by Gilbert Hernandez (1957-    ) and Ape Sex (graph 1989) by Jaime Hernandez – Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987; graph 1987) by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, V for Vendetta (March 1982-February 1985 Warrior; exp graph 1990) by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and, more recently, Bone (serialized 1991-2004, graph 2004) by Jeff Smith and We3 (graph 2005) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.

The term may have become a commercial tag, but its very existence represented an opportunity for ambitious comic-book artists and writers to test the boundaries of their medium, to demonstrate the organized complexity possible in the interplay between the conventions of written narrative and visual storytelling. The best graphic novels are more than the sum of their parts; they are visions of the world which cannot be paraphrased into any other medium. [NG/JC/JP]

see also: Echo; The Hunger Dogs; Planetary.


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