28 December 2007

When Graphic Novels Aren't Novelistic

In the last few months, as I've doggedly re-explored comics, I've read several "graphic novels" that I don't think deserve that label. It's not that their storytelling isn't sophisticated enough to deserve the respect that Will Eisner was seeking when he coined that term.

Rather, I can't let go of the fact that a novel isn't simply a story long enough that its printed form has a spine thick enough for a title. A novel is an extended yet complete and unified story. It's a single narrative in itself, neither a collection of tales nor just one installment of a larger tale.

Linda Medley's first Castle Waiting book is one of these problematic "graphic novels," entertaining as it is. Early chapters show the character of Lady Jain making her way to the castle and giving birth to a son--a son with intriguingly pointed ears. There are many hints of troubles from her husband and/or the father of that child. And at the end of the book we learn...about a completely different character's past. We never get answers to Lady Jain's mysteries.

Another example was the Captain America volume titled Winter Soldier. Its front flap concludes:

In this bold new series, writer Ed Brubaker enmeshes the hero in a taut thriller ripped from today's headlines of political intrigue and terrorist threats to democracy.
All quite exciting, especially for an old Invaders fan, but this "graphic novel" also leaves its hero completely enmeshed in that taut thriller. It's only half of a story at best, but do you see "Part 1" or "Volume 1" on the cover? Would a non-graphic novel ever end halfway through?

Bill Willingham's To Kill a Bird shows Tim Drake moving to a new city after the death of his father. It's entirely episodic, and about three-quarters of the way through it starts spinning out new plot threads that are never resolved. That's because this "graphic novel" is simply a collection of issues 134 to 139 of the Robin comic book, and they barely hang together. (Several whiplash changes in art styles within the book don't help.)

Dennis O'Neil's DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics even gives away the company secret of how to braid plot lines from one issue to the next, making one issue burst into flower while growing the stem for another and planting the seed for a third. Comic books, like soap operas, movie serials, and other ongoing narratives, aren't designed just to tell us a satisfying story. They're also supposed to motivate us to come back for the next issue. Unlike novels, they aren't meant to be complete.

In the past few years, DC and Marvel Comics have apparently decided to repackage nearly every issue of their most popular comic books into "graphic novels." Some of the resulting books, such as the Batman volume As the Crow Flies, are close to self-contained and thus satisfying on their own. Many more have plot threads hanging off both ends.

Age of Bronze creator Eric Shanower has commented on this blog that the term "graphic novel" now means nothing more than a physical format, a comics story thick enough for a spine. Ironically, Eric's own collected editions have satisfying story arcs, each telling a discrete leg of the saga of the Trojan War, though they're made up of individual magazine issues. (We can't expect Eric to fit all of the Trojan War saga between two covers--not even Homer managed that.)

I can't shake the worry that calling all such comics "graphic novels" does a disservice to both readers and creators by fuzzing the important differences between a collection of installments within an ongoing saga and stories conceived to stand by themselves. Both require sophisticated storytelling skills. A cliffhanger ending that makes you come back for more and a plot resolution that leaves you satisfied are both feats worthy of praise. So is it too much to hope that the industry's labels for these different types of comics become just as sophisticated, and not one-size-fits-all?


Anonymous said...

I think it's misleading to apply any definition of the word "novel" when using the term "graphic novel." Eisner intended a graphic novel to have literary qualities, but even his first graphic novel, A Contract with God, is a collection of short stories only loosely--if at all--related to each other.

In Europe the term equivalent to the USA's "graphic novel" is "graphic album." Several US comics publishers have used "graphic album" at times, but it's never caught on. I think it's a better term, especially since the term "album" as applied to disc recordings has mostly disappeared from popular parlance.

But I think we're stuck with "graphic novel." It's certainly become entrenched in comics publishing over the past 25 years. You just can't expect a graphic novel to have the same non-serial aims as a novel. The definition of "graphic novel" isn't "a novel with graphics." Never has been--whether before or after Eisner.

This has all been discussed to death within the comics community for years. Many cartoonists don't like the term "graphic novel." But the consensus seems to be that we're stuck with the term. There have been attempts to introduce other terms--for instance, graphic album, as I mentioned above. Donna Barr (creator of Stinz and The Desert Peach) wants everyone to adopt the term "drawn books," which does seem a clear, all-encompassing term. But it hasn't caught on so far, and it's been at least five years since I first heard her advocating "drawn books."

But it creates confusion to introduce new terms without some sort of larger consensus. Donna Barr gave many of her papers and works to a local university. The head of special collections at the university wanted to confirm with me that "drawn books" was the correct terms. I explained to him that I thought that Donna's attempt to introduce clarity was admirable, but that her term wasn't widely accepted; he'd either be confused or cause confusion if he were to use the term "drawn books" and expect most people to know it was an equivalent to the term "graphic novel."

Anyway, those are just some random thoughts. I'm certainly willing to discuss further and offer my experiences if anyone is interested.

Eric Shanower

Anonymous said...

"You just can't expect a graphic novel to have the same non-serial aims as a novel."

In writing this I didn't mean that a graphic novel can't have the same non-serial aims as a novel. Graphic novels can. I just meant not to expect it. I wasn't clear enough.


J. L. Bell said...

I know I'm fussing over a barn door that swung open a long time ago, but I still wish there were different terms for a truly unified book-length story in comics form, a collection of such stories, and an installment of such stories—especially if the field is borrowing terms from other literary genres.

I'm pleased to see the field has another term out there in "graphic album." (I agree that "drawn book" hasn't achieved much traction; it also doesn't address the unified/non-unified distinction I'm getting at.)

The use of the term "album" in the music business provides an interesting analogue. Recorded music was originally sold in units of one or two songs. [Why am I writing this to someone who lives with a Grammy-nominated historical record producer? But I forge on.] At first an "album" was a collection of those separate musical recordings, then a collection of those songs on one long-playing disk.

Gradually recording artists realized the potential of an "album" to be a unified creation in itself. I think that started with the scores of musical shows, then flowered with cycles of thematically linked songs from artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Beatles.

It's interesting that the term "album" survived even when cassettes were the dominant format for those works. But then "CD" supplanted the term, even though there are various types of CDs. And now the music industry is back to the era of 45s and cylinders, selling one song at a time.

So what does that tell us? Maybe that artists' conceptions are driven by commercial factors and available technology more than the other way around. Maybe that terms like "album" and "graphic novel" have never had consistent logic.

But perhaps we Americans can borrow "graphic album" for book-length comics that are non-unified collections, and keep "graphic novel" for unified stories akin to prose novels. Perhaps we can also bring peace to the Middle East.

DC Comics has subcategories within its "graphic novels" for collections. The Archives volumes have hardcovers, slick paper, high prices. Its "showcase" titles appear in softcover on pulp paper with no color. Marvel seems to call its reprints "digests," but its website starts to give me a headache before I can confirm more details about their formats. So the big two companies understand the difference I'm pointing to, and how it might be meaningful to their customers.

Eventually, I suppose, this will sort itself out, perhaps with new terminology, or perhaps with a change in the business. For now, I just don't want to have to go on the web to find out what's in a "graphic novel" to know whether it will have a satisfying ending or just break off. I know that providing comprehensive information about comics is a major function of the internet today, but still it would be nice for the books themselves to convey that information.