Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Graphic Novels

The primary reason for this post is that my artist friend and previously blogged about author John Lechner just finished writing an essay about graphic novels and comics that I'd like to share with you. You'll remember that he's the creative mind behind Sticky Burr. This is the link to the essay, and here's an excerpt:

The uneasy truth is that there are no clear definitions, only collective opinions. The word “comic” has been used to describe everything from Tintin to Krazy Kat to Maus — and yet, the word still can’t get a seat in a restaurant (or rather, a bookstore). Not so in countries like Japan, where the term Manga (translated literally as “humorous pictures”) covers an astounding array of comics and graphic fiction, both serious and silly, long and short, for adults and kids. The term does not have the limited association we Americans give to the word “comics” as something frivolous, insignificant, for people who don’t have the attention span for “real” books. Despite a few notable exceptions and a Pulitzer Prize, the comic has been banished to dimestore racks, independent comic shops, and underground presses.

I've rambled on more than once about how much I dislike that comics get called graphic novels so casually these days. It's more out of a fear of the word "comic" being stricken from the lexicon, or being forever categorized as a low and unworthy art form. I guess mainly because comic is the word I like. It's really the "comic book" that suffers from a supposedly embarrassing legacy in the public mind. The fact that graphic novels are taking off is a great thing for the comics medium, and I definitely have an appreciation for the gatekeeper reasoning of marketing to bookstores and libraries. But labeling as a marketing device still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And I've never liked the hierarchies of the art world in general (that one form should be regarded higher than another). Plus, it almost implies a sort of insecurity comic artists might have about their art form. It resonates of self-aggrandizement, too.

When people define graphic novels as comic books of a serious literary quality, length and breadth I guess it gives me a clear picture of what kinds of comics they are referring to. But when definitions speak of higher quality and sophistication it rubs me the wrong way. If you look at the entire scope of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, or George Herriman's Krazy Kat, they are both definitely worthy or critical analysis, and they were regarded as comic strips for the masses in their day. And I'm not sure all comics labeled as graphic novels can live up to the said standards. They just get marketed that way to get them on to book shelves. But if I'm in the book store, I'm definitely looking for the graphic novel section, since most of the comics I'm interested in are shelved there (versus the humor section—which is usually reserved for comic strip books). You don't, however, see graphic novel stores. I go to the comics store to get at the gut of the medium. So that in itself tells me that the graphic novel caught on as a term for the masses mainly to get comics into bookstores.

Ironically, the term "comic" is somewhat arbitrary, too, isn't it?—initially meant to convey the humor of the early forms, not the format at all. Maybe they should've been called "picto-squares" or "lots o' boxes." Hmph.

I'd be curious to read people's thoughts. So leave a comment if you like!

UPDATE: John just pointed me to an article on Salon.com by Douglas Wolk that speaks to some of these very issues. Read it here.

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