What are graphic novels? You might think they are easy to define, but the term has become distorted with prejudices and preconceptions, riddled with confusion among the media and public, and a topic of dispute among ‘graphic novelists’ themselves, some of whom reject the label outright.
Ask people about graphic novels and some will say immediately, "Oh, you mean porn." That’s not entirely wrong. There are erotic ones for adults only, but graphic is not short for pornographic. Others perceive graphic novels only as gaudy escapism, whether superheroic, fantasy-based, science-fictional, or hard-boiled, for adolescent males, all furious spectacle and special effects and little depth or humanity, like their movie counterparts. There is some truth to this too; because so much fantasy and action material is pumped out by publishers of comic books and manga, or Japanese comics, these tend to crowd the shelves in many bookstores and libraries, often near the science-fiction and role-playing game books. But graphic novels are not limited to one genre-category, or only a few; they embrace enough subjects to put them into every section of a library or bookstore. The word graphic does not have to mean disturbing, extreme, and in your face, shown in hard outlines, grotesque caricatures, or lurid coloring. There is room for very different styles of art. In fact, graphic does not narrow down to drawing and illustration, as in graphics, since some artists create their comics using photos, 3D models, or found objects.
The term novel can make people expect the sort of format, serious intent, and weighty heft of traditional literature, as if a graphic novel must be the visual equivalent of "an extended, fictional work." True, some individual graphic novels can run to hundreds of pages, while others stretch to thousands across multiple volumes - but many are much shorter, or consist of collections of short stories, and they come in all shapes, square, oblong, from miniscule to gigantic. Even more importantly, a great many are definitely not fictional at all but belong in the categories of non-fictional - history, biography, reportage, documentary, or educational.
So in several ways graphic novel is a misnomer, but, unlike other words invented in the past in an effort to over come the stigmas of humor and childishness of the word ‘comics’, like Charles Biro’s ‘Illustories’, Bill Gaines’ ‘Picto-Fiction’, or even Will Eisner’s ‘Sequential Art’, this term has caught on and extended the language and dictionaries, for all its inaccuracies. It has been around since 1964, when American comics critic and magazine publisher Richard Kyle coined it. Kyle was among the first to import and champion European comics, especially French bande dessinées in color hardback albums, and thick Japanese paperbacks of manga. These came as revelations to him compared to the disposable, monthly stapled pamphlets on cheap newsprint that made up most of the American comic book factories. Here he had evidence of more of the medium’s potential being realised abroad. Kyle came up with ‘graphic story’, and from that the ‘graphic novel’, to galvanise American creators and readers to aspire to similar ambition and sophistication.
In America and internationally, this process has taken a long, long time. In 1969, novelist and once-aspiring cartoonist John Updike came to England to address the Bristol Literary Society about "the death of the novel" and, among the new forms he envisioned for it, he speculated: "I see no intrinsic why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic-strip novel masterpiece." Many have tried to achieve this, often in the face of social or critical disdain. Comics in book form have existed for at least two centuries, enjoying sporadic flurries of success, such as a vogue in 1930 for wordless ‘pictorial narratives’ sparked by Lynd Ward’s God’s Man in 1929, a fad stifled by the Depression, or more recently the media frenzy around Maus, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in the mid-1980s.
It has always been a fragile history. Looking further back, some of the 19th century’s pioneering antecedents of graphic novels might never have seen print at all without the admiration of the German poet, novelist, and dramatist Goethe. A year or two before his death in 1832, Goethe was shown the unpublished books by a boys’ boarding school teacher from Geneva, Rodolphe Töpffer. He called them his histoires en estampes or stories told in prints. His Adventures Of Dr. Festus was said to have given Goethe in his eighties "extraordinary pleasure". Reportedly, he kept repeating, "That is really too crazy," and then continued: "But [Töpffer] really sparkles with talent and wit; much of it is quite perfect; it shows just how much the artist could yet achieve, if he dealt with modern [or less frivolous] material and went to work with less haste, and more reflection. If Töpffer did not have such an insignificant text [ie story] before him, he would invent things which would surpass all our expectations."
Despite this praise, Töpffer was wary of tarnishing his respectability as a newly appointed professor if he made his book publicly available, so he held back until 1832 from publishing Monsieur Jabot, and then only among friends, and waited until 1834 before arranging bookshop sales. His embarrassment at being a comics creator is nothing new. Nor is impoverishment, which drove young Gustave Doré to abandon the medium after the failure of his History Of Holy Russia, for which he produced 500 engravings in 1854. If only Doré had done more. Missed opportunities, unrealised dreams, thwarted possibilities have always dogged the graphic novel and its predecessors. In Hicksville, New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks imagines a library, fittingly within a lighthouse, which contains the only copies of all those dreamt but unseen projects that were abandoned or never started, all those contenders for the ‘comic-strip novel masterpieces’ that Goethe and Updike had predicted. Among them, the librarian pulls out, "48 page comic [Picasso] did with Lorca. Etchings mostly. I reckon it’s one of his best."
When Will Eisner stepped off America’s endless assembly-line of daily strips or monthly comic books, he threw down the gauntlet to his peers in 1978 with his graphic novel, A Contract With God. From experience, he knew that, against all odds, creators could produce good, sometimes great, work under those conveyor-belt conditions. He understood why many were reluctant to sacrifice their steady, work-for-hire paycheck, but Eisner’s self-driven opus shone like the lighthouse-library, a beacon of inspiration to his peers. Eisner left us in 2005, but he did get to see graphic novels resurface in this new century. This time it seems different. Their diversity and quality are stronger, the readership more curious and receptive, the media less hyperbolic. No passing craze or graphic novelties this time; a medium is coming into its own.
So what are graphic novels? For a definition, I think Eddie Campbell, author of Alec and artist on From Hell, may be right when he says in his manifesto that the term "graphic novel signifies a movement rather than a form." Consequently, "there is nothing to be gained by defining it." Campbell says this movement’s goal is "to take the form of the comic book, which has become an embarrassment, and raise it to a more ambitious and meaningful level." It is "forging a whole new art which will not be a slave to the arbitrary rules of the old one."
Listen carefully. Can you hear them? The scratching of their pens and pencils, the clatter of keyboards? At this moment, all over the world, people are preparing more comics, more stories, and defining a movement.Posted: June 6, 2009
This article is adapted from the introduction to Paul Gravett’s book Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life, first published by Aurum Press in 2005.