Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

The Problem with Graphic Novels

 

I have loved comic books right from when I first learnt how to read. It started with Tintin and Asterix and Obelix as a child, which my mum introduced me to. I later discovered superheroes as a teenager – Batman and X-Men were (and still are) particular favourites. Not long after that I started to widen my reading list to include series’ like Hellblazer, Sandman, Lucifer, The Authority, Phonogram and Watchmen, as well as many popular manga titles like Death Note, Cardcaptor Sakura, Neon Genesis Evangelion, D-Gray Man, Black Butler and Ouran High School Host Club. So that’s me: nowhere near an expert, but very much an avid fan-girl.

There were of course more innocent times when I pondered things like, ‘Wait, is that guy Marvel or DC?’ And ‘So what is the difference between manga and anime?’ It’s all part of the learning curve. It was while reading the blurb of Watchmen (and very much still curving the learn) that I first remember coming across the term ‘graphic novel.’ It was used in a quote from Time magazine: “[Watchmen is] one of the greatest graphic novels of all time.” ‘Graphic novel?’ I wondered. ‘So this isn’t just regular comic I’m reading then…’ I mean, the word ‘novel’ as opposed to ‘book’ somehow sounds superior doesn’t it? Coupled with the sheer strength of Moore and Gibbon’s work I naively believed that the formula must be:

graphic novel > comic book

As though ‘graphic novel’ was a higher title bestowed upon a higher quality of comic book. Like a knighthood or something. I also found out that Watchmen was the only comic book to have made Time’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time list, which cemented all this further in my mind. ‘Wow!’ I thought, whilst probably brushing my hair into a frizzy hell. ‘This comic book is so good its ranked among real books!’

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Of course graphic novel is not any determining value for quality. What ‘graphic novel’ is actually defined as is merely collected issues of a continuing storyline of a particular character/team/franchise. It’s a volume, really. I don’t know why they didn’t use volume as the name for it in the first place as they do in Japan for manga collections. According to Wikipedia (because I’m a lazy researcher) the term first appeared in 1978, was thrown around a bit for similar titles to Watchmen,and eventually become popularised enough to be inducted as an official category in bookshops and publishing companies. I suppose the thinking was that as the stories became longer, each issue served as a chapter, and so to collect all of these chapters together meant that the volume resembled a regular book…but with pictures. So yes, the term makes sense. (Certainly in my mind, a graphic novel is a more fitting description for the format that most illustrated books take – particularly children’s books, in which image and word are separated rather than integrated.)

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I’m not certainly not against collecting issues of comics together – my comic book consumption these days is largely centred around waiting for collected volumes to be published as I simply do not have the time, space or money anymore for every individual issue of every millions of titles that apparently are necessary for every bloody character…*SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH* Long story short: I like volumes. (Manga titles are collected as ‘volumes’, FYI.) My problem is that the term has become so ubiquitous that comic book and graphic novel are used as interchangeable names now even when the technical definition is incorrect. In the same way I thought a graphic novel was a fancy word for a comic book as a kid, nowadays it is commonplace for people to use the former rather than the latter for one of two reasons:

  1. They genuinely think that the comic they have read is ‘too good’ to be classed ‘simply’ as a comic.
  2. They don’t want to admit they enjoy reading comic books.

The first point I think I’ve talked about already. If you are reading a collected volume of issues, then yes, you are technically reading a graphic novel and I’ll let you off. If not, there’s no excuse: It’s a comic book. If you enjoyed it then you enjoyed it because it was a well-written and well-drawn comic book.

The second point is what I call the Harry Potter factor. Do you remember when Harry Potter started to emerge as really big thing? Like a massive-all-consuming-religious-behemoth-of-literature thing? It was enjoyed by millions of children everywhere (myself included) but it was also enjoyed by millions of slightly ashamed adults. They were ashamed because they actually enjoyed reading a kid’s book on the train to work. So rather than these poor ashamed adults just removing the dust jackets, the publishing company came up with an alternative solution for them: they published new editions with fancy-schmancy ‘adult’ covers. I’m guessing this was also quite handy for the sales figures (as if they needed help…)

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This issue is to do with elevation. Usually when a product has to be ‘elevated’ it means that its original form is not deemed palatable enough for consumers beyond the product’s normal fan circle. So it has to be re-branded. You can also see this exemplified in the re-release of old films in 3D – same content; different jacket (and more money to be made). A more complex example is the elevation of graffiti to street art. Where graffiti or tagging is illegal, certain examples by certain artists – Banksy, for instance – are now protected and treasured by the communities of whose walls they adorn. Of course in the case of Banksy a conscious decision was made by the artist to elevate his own work by exhibiting it in gallery spaces and selling it, and in doing so I don’t think he intentionally meant to dilute the graffiti art genre away from subversive, transient and – most importantly – free pieces into the massively fashionable and collectable commodities that they have become. It’s hard to get on a bus these days without seeing some dude or lady-dude sporting the ‘Obey’ motif by Shepard Fairey on a beanie, for instance. Now, as a commercial artist I of course recognise and understand the need and want to make a living from doing what you love. However, donning my critics’ hat (which is covered with coffee stains and glitter in case you were wondering) I can’t help but see this tale of a rebellious medium being eaten up and then spat back out in glossier, commercialised packaging as an all too familiar and cautionary one.

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Comic books, however, were born into commercialism. They began life as satirical cartoon strips in newspapers and magazines, where they still survive today, and morphed into the form we know them in today through fantasy, sci-fi and Superheroe stories. (I am ignoring the history of manga here, which is far older and culturally rooted in classical Japanese art.) Comic books never had to worry about the whole ‘selling out’ thing. That’s the beauty of them in a way: crude, intelligent, arty, surreal or serious; as long as they found a fan base, big or small, they could survive. They had no formal rules of content or conduct really – aside from the obvious self-defining ‘must integrate pictures with text’ one. Comics are a true art form for the masses. Comics were born to be sold. In the same way that retro-fitted 3D doesn’t improve a film and a fancier dustcover doesn’t improve a Harry Potter book, calling a comic book a graphic novel doesn’t improve the comic book. If we make the mistake of assuming that a graphic novel is an elevated comic then we could make the mistake of thinking that a comic book is a downgraded graphic novel by default, in the same way we could assume that a black and white film is a downgraded colour film.

Let’s not forget either that comic books were once – and sort of still are – aimed at children and teenagers. The fact that these kids grew up and continued to enjoy them speaks for the strength of the storytelling in having universal and enduring appeal, not for the strength of the marketing campaign or the category it can be found under in a bookshop.

“[I write graphic novels not comics books?] Meant as a compliment I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” – Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Companion (1999)

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