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GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life

A Review By: The List

The following feature ran in the Edinburgh & Glasgow listings magazine The List in the December 1-15th 2005 issue.

Diverse attractions: For over a quarter of a century, the genre has been growing and changing. Miles Fielder asks Paul Gravett the big question: just what is a graphic novel?

Paul Gravett rather succinctly describes his book Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life as his ‘Janet and John guide’ to the art form. The coffee table-sized book include’s a number of essays about various graphic novels genres - biographical, psychological, romantic, crime - plus a section designed to overcome negative preconceptions and osme suggested initial reading. The majority of the book, however, compirses colour spreads of complete pages from graphic novels annotated with explanatory footnotes on form, style and content.

‘A lot of people are quite baffled by what a graphic novel is,’ says Gravett, who has been promoting them as a writer, curator, lecturer and broadcaster for 20 years. ‘In bookshops, there’s a baffling array of stuff, from Buffy books to Japanese manga. The idea of this book is to provide some kind of direction and appeal, so that people can explore graphic novels. And part of that idea is to provide example pages for a selection of graphic novels, rather like a film clip or a snatch of music, so that people can see what the stories are about, how the storytelling works and even learn how to read a graphic novel.’

So what is a graphic novel? ‘To have any definition for it is just not helpful. Should it have speech balloons? Can it have just one picture per page? That argument distracts from the real issue, which is to have the most interesting and diverse books and storytelling posible.’ Gravett insists that Scottish artist Eddie Campbell had it right when he wrote in his manifesto that ‘the term graphic novel signifies a movement rather than a form.’

Ever since 1978 when Will Eisner coined the term ‘graphic novel’ with A Contract With God, that movement has been maturing and innovating the cartooning medium. The much-celebrated publication in the mid-1980s of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s [and Dave Giibbons’] Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Maus were all watersheds. But the subsequent media frenzy created a climate publishers exploited by putting out bad quality books under the graphic novel guise. ‘It was a boom and bust cycle,’ says Gravett. ‘Things have moved on now so that society is more accepting of graphic novels. The most hopeful thing is that publishers, like Aurum and Jonathan Cape, are starting to commission new work. And with the recent success of Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware and Joe Sacco, there is a substantial range open to the general public where there hasn’t been before.’

So, where does Gravett see the graphic novel going from here? ‘I think the book format graphic novels, as opposed to the pamphlet [comic book], will appeal to a new and broader readership. It’s already happened in France, where graphic novels are published straight into book form. And in Japan, they have disposable [weekly, bi-weekly and] monthly [periodicals], which are later collected into hardback books to buy, keep and re-read. And I think we’re going to see a lot more diversity of storytelling,’ he says, citing as an example Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s forthcoming graphic memoir Cancer Vixen, about a woman’s battle with breast cancer. ‘And I’d like to see the media talking about graphic novels in a much more literary way than they have in the past.’

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