06 November 2007

Drawing the Line Between Comics and Picture Books

I am of course not the only fellow musing on where the line, if any, lies between comics and picture books. That's a big part of the argument in Dylan Horrocks's essay, "Inventing Comics," against taking Scott McCloud's influential analyses of comics as the last word on the art form.

This passage in Horrocks's critique focuses on McCloud's attempt in Understanding Comics to distinguish between picture books and comics:

The belief that ‘comics are a visual medium’ sits guard at one of comics’ most fragile frontiers - the one between comics and illustrated texts (children’s picture books and so on). In fact, in Understanding Comics [McCloud] fails to define it at all. And by including a number of children’s picture books (such as Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen), he even seems to leave it wide open.

But when R. C. Harvey raises the question of this border, it soon becomes clear that this was not Scott’s intention:
Harvey: ‘Do you think that your definition also includes children’s literature - books in which there is a picture on every page and prose beneath each picture?’

McCloud: ‘not if the prose is independent of the pictures. Not if the written story could exist without any pictures and still be a continuous whole. That’s how it’s usually done, whereas the pictures are usually discontinuous...’

Harvey: ‘[That is] the narrative is continuous and independent of the pictures. And the pictures really are illustrating some moment in the prose narrative. There’s no necessary narrative strand in the pictures themselves.’

McCloud: ‘If you turn that on its head, you have comics. If the pictures, independent of the words, are telling the whole story and the words are supplementing that, then that is comics.’
This exchange is a revealing one. If we were to take his definition at face value, we would expect Scott to agree that children’s picture books are indeed comics. So long as there are two pictures somewhere in a book - and so long as those pictures form a narrative, then that book is a comic by Scott’s definition. After all, there are those books by Sendak, [Jules] Feiffer and [Edward] Gorey he includes in Understanding Comics. And if he’s willing to include stained glass windows, photo-booth strips and Hogarth’s etchings, then surely he’s happy to welcome the countless literary classics that the inclusion of picture books would bring into the realm of comics.

But McCloud is not willing to concede the point. Instead he struggles to qualify his definition in such a way that it will exclude ‘mere illustrated texts.’ It is no longer enough that there be spatially juxtaposed pictures, nor that the reader performs closure in reading those images. Now the pictures must tell the whole story, independent of the words - which are only allowed to supplement the pictorial narrative. In effect, McCloud has added an amendment to his definition: comics must not only contain pictorial narrative; they must be dominated by it.
I think Horrocks is correct that McCloud's attempt here to differentiate traditional picture books from traditional comics doesn't hold water. In many picture books the illustrations can tell the whole story, with the words merely filling in details. And there are wordless picture books, such as Flotsam. And finally there are many comics that would be incomprehensible (or even more incomprehensible) without their words.

But I do think there's an artistic difference between the examples of picture books that McCloud accepts as comics and most picture books. And I think it's apparent in this page from In the Night Kitchen.

TOMORROW: Spelling out the difference, part 1.


Anonymous said...

Some thoughts: IS IT important to draw a line between comics and picture books?

Except that it's lacking an establishing shot of the bull ring, The Story of Ferdinand works as comics.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, some of us (Scott McCloud is obviously one, and I'm another) do like to analyze and classify things. Not necessarily to separate them and draw rigid lines, but because that's how we come to understand things better.

Furthermore, there does seem to be a popular perception of a difference between comics and picture books as forms of illustrated storytelling. Book editors are saying they're more interested in seeing "graphic novel" techniques in picture books, and publishers are setting up division to publish comics. So it could be valuable to understand what difference they perceive.

Finally, I think there are meaningful differences between traditional picture books and traditional comics. And by those standards The Story of Ferdinand is clearly a picture book. Not because Robert Lawson’s stellar draftsmanship would be out of place in comics, but because of the way his art appears in the book, and what that artwork shows and doesn’t show.

I'll rattle on about what I mean, and then I'd be delighted to hear a different view.

david elzey said...

See, for me there's a certain "I know it when I see it" quality between a wordless picture book and the definition of a comic. I would agree that Flotsom is a picture book but would call Regis Faller's Polo books graphic novels for a very young set.

The line I'd rather have more clearly drawn is between a comic book and a graphic novel, because I DO feel these is a difference on many levels -- issues of quality, style, narrative -- and I find many in children's publishing and bookselling absolutely bamboozled at seeing the difference.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that most people do get a quick sense of how an illustrated book stands on a picture book/comics spectrum when they see it. I've been wondering about what I actually see when I make such a judgment. Yes, Poco works more like Little Nemo in Slumberland than like The Cinder-Eyed Cats. But why?

As for the "quality, style, narrative" differences between comics and graphic novels, I see those as a matter of how much sophistication the creators use in conceiving and telling their stories rather than a difference in technique. Just as a crappy novel and a great novel are both novels, I've come to think of a crappy, exploitative comic book and Maus as both comics.

But we can certainly draw some lines to define what makes one comic more interesting or sophisticated than another.

Anonymous said...

Although Will Eisner's definition of the term "graphic novel" has the word "literary" in it, the term has come to simply apply to format. I can't see any difference between "comics" and "graphic novels" except format at this point. Age of Bronze is published in both formats. For decades I've called myself a cartoonist, but now for fashionable reasons I'm trying to refer to myself as a graphic novelist. Does the fact that most of my work is published in pamphlet form undercut that label?

Maus was published in something close to the pamphlet form originally--serialized in Raw magazine in small pamphlets. But I don't know anyone nowadays who wouldn't call Maus a graphic novel.

On a webcast I did a few years ago with novelist and columnist Michael Cart, he insisted that the end-of-the-line form of comics originally serialized in pamphlets and later bound into collections are called trade paperbacks--regardless of whether the binding is softcover or hardcover. I argued against this, though it is true that many people in the comics business call this form trade paperbacks or "tp"s. I maintain that it's confusing and nonsensical.

My view is that the term comics applies to the medium and covers all forms and formats, no matter whether its bound with staples, smyth-sewn, or carved into the lower frieze of the Temple of Zeus at Pergamon. The term "graphic novel" applies to a format.

david elzey said...

Ah, but what do we make of serial trade paperback comics like manga? Does something like Osamu Tezuka's Buddha stand alone volume by volume, or is it all one gigantic work like Proust?

There's a whole new can of worms here. I'm going to leave it at that.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I'm trying to use "comics" as a generic, catch-all term for the form, and not get into the pitfalls of the "graphic novel" label. That's in part because the term seems to be getting attached only to comics of a certain length and binding, as you say, and also because I have too much love for the "novel" as its own literary form to be happy using the term for just any long book.

I have used "graphic novel" for Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which I would argue is not comics but is a novel with integrated graphics.

Perhaps we'll eventually find a term to replace "graphic novel" or "trade paperback comics" that everyone can agree on. Or perhaps we'll just get used to the terms we have and not worry about their roots or connotations, just as we no longer expect novels or the novel form to be new.

One of the spurs to this series of posts is how I've been going into the children's rooms of local libraries and seeing all the "graphic novels" shelved together, regardless of their content or audience. Nonfiction and fiction, short tales for beginning readers and long stories for teens, big hardcovers and little paperbacks, picture books that have multiple images on a spread but nothing else of the comics form, series schlock and serious standalone work—all in one section of shelving. That got me thinking, why are we now perceiving all those books to be alike, and different from all the other books in the same room?

J. L. Bell said...

The whole question of series versus standalone works is indeed fraught with too much consequence for this discussion. Comics, popular children's books, and fantasy all often come in series, and some people have downgraded the genres as a result.

Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of my post Series as a Genre Unto Themselves. I also recommend Monica Edinger's recent Thoughts on Newbery: What About Sequels?.

Mac McCool said...

Fun discussion! Concerning Selznick's Invention of Hugo Cabret, for the illustrated pages, it essentially does in a book what storyboards do for a film or animated feature. The main difference with The Invention of Hugo Cabret lies in the rendering quality of the art, more detailed and finished than in a film or TV storyboard. Perhaps a "cinematic novel" better denotes Selznick's concept, especially since film so heavily influenced the book's genesis and content, and thus we avoid the confusion with "graphic novel" (in fact, Selznick's book bears none of the main "trademarks" of comics, such as pages with many panels, speech balloons, juxtaposition of text and image on the same page, onomatopoeias, motion lines, etc.). Great book nonetheless! Eric, it was fun to see your books in French in bookstores (I'm in France now!).