Graphic Novels: Has Their Time Come?

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Malloy angelini taddei panini comics 9L fumetti graphic novel. Image: Memoriafumetto68 / Public domain
What distinguishes a graphic novel from a comic book? Why are they considered 'inferior' to 'literature'?

Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina’s nomination to the long-list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, raised many eyebrows; the question that literature lovers raised was, does a comic book deserve this honour? Drnaso himself sounded apologetic:

I worry that including a comic book is just detracting from the other authors on the list, not to mention frustrating the people who feel it doesn’t qualify. They’re pretty different forms of art, so I totally understand.

It’s a different matter altogether that Sabrina didn’t eventually make it – even into the shortlist for Man Booker. Finding a place in the long-list was a defining moment for the literary genre that has increasingly come to occupy a distinctive space in bookshelves in recent decades.

What distinguishes a graphic novel from a comic book? Opinions vary, and perceptions differ. Millennia ago, people made cave paintings to tell stories; centuries later, they used copper plates for that purpose. Guttenberg’s press brought in printing, and over time drawing stories and printing them became the practice, apart from regular book publishing. Mythology and folklore provided ample inspiration to creative minds to weave stories, embellished with illustrations.

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Page 1 of 2 of Jessica Abel’s comic strip “What is a ‘Graphic Novel’?” Author: Jessica Abel. Image: Public domain

Comics have been around for long; by and large, it’s thought that comics are for children. If youngsters and adults browse comics, they tend to cover it up as though it were an aberration. Children have grown up addicted to comics that appear as daily strips or serialised stories in newspapers and magazines. In later years, they would recall fondly, characters that were dear to them – be it heroes or heroines, villains or vagabonds, pets or wild ones. Inevitably, there were the good beings that confronted evil, most successfully at that, making life comfortable and happy.

How did the simple comics transform themselves to graphic novels? To some who have studied this, it betrays a certain cultural prejudice of the Americans and the British. They argue that Europe always had a strong tradition of storytelling through this medium, both for children and adults; the tremendous appeal of the Japanese manga for all age groups is another example.

Comic critic Richard Kyle first used the expression ‘graphic novel’ in 1964. Through the 1970s, it was used by DC Comics (1971), Jack Katz (1974) and George Metzger, Richard Corben and Byron Preiss (1976). However, with A Contract with God (1978), Will Eisner gave a new dimension to the graphic novel genre which he chose to define as ‘Sequential Art’. Eisner said:

Comics deal with two fundamental communicating devices: words and images. Admittedly this is an arbitrary separation. But, since in the modern world of communication they are treated as independent disciplines, it seems valid. Actually, they are derivations of a single origin and in the skillful employment of words and images lies the expressive potential of the medium.

He suggested ‘sequential art’ because he believed that “something needed to be done to correct the inferiority by artists and writers in the field.”

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An original pen and ink drawing from page 124 of Martin Rowson’s graphic novel reworking of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. We shall bring all things to rights. 1996. Image: Courtesy of the Laurence Sterne Trust at Shandy Hall

It is interesting that the ‘graphic novel’ terminology has been aggressively pushed by the American and British publishers who felt that the word ‘comics’ made it as though the genre were meant only for children. Alan Moore, whose V for Vendetta and Watchmen have been international bestsellers – also successful films – has spoken up for both usages. Moore, while describing how adults preferred a better term, once said, “comics were for children and for intellectually subnormal people, whereas graphic novel sounds like a much more sophisticated proposition”; he has, however, insisted: “To paint comic books as childish and illiterate is lazy. A lot of comic books are very literate.”

Encyclopedia Britannica describes the graphic novel as “…a type of text combining words and images – essentially a comic, although the term most commonly refers to a complete story presented as a book rather than a periodical.” Analysts feel that there are no watertight compartments between comics and graphic novels. While comics appeared daily, weekly or monthly for kids, with new crosswords or puzzles for youngsters, they were repackaged for an adult audience with better presentations and illustrations in graphic novels. This helped in the latter finding acceptance with publishers and slowly winding their way to bookstores.

If one looks at comics and graphic novels, one notices that many runs through both – good against evil, crime thrillers, horror stories, monsters, vampires, vigilantes, aliens, ghosts, grossly wild animals, extra-terrestrials, science fiction, etc. While the early comics were straightforward with simple sketching, graphic novels use designed layouts and colourful panels corresponding to the text matter; further, the visual and the verbal, the word and the image, get greater attention and correlation in graphic novels.

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Comic strip by Barbara Slate. Author: Barbara Slate. Image: Public domain.

They also have a higher aesthetics in the satire and caricature components to appeal to an adult audience. Yet, it retains what it tries to avoid – an element of appeal to the child in the reader, the super being that rails against evil, the innate strands of a comic serial. What works in its favour – not merely in comparison to comics but also books – is that it breaks the monotony of text-dependent storytelling through artful illustrations.

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The cartoon history of the United States. Image: Public domain

From R. Crumb’s comics of the 1960s through Eisner, Moore, Frank Miller, Art Spiegelman, Craig Thompson, Jason Walz, Marjane Satrapi, and many others, this medium has found new momentum. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, travel documentarian and television personality, who committed suicide earlier this year, was an accomplished graphic novelist with his Get Jiro series; his last work, Hungry Ghosts, has just been released.

More and more writers are going beyond the conventional themes and writing stories that can endow any finished literary work; thus, Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts tells eerie food tales of the Japanese Samurai period.

While Drnaso’s Sabrina hit the Man Booker headlines, it is worth recalling that Art Spiegelman had won a Special Pulitzer Citation in 1992 for Maus, the serialised story of a Holocaust survivor; Time magazine’s 100 best English novels between 1923 and 2005 slot Alan Moore’s Watchmen at number 18. But Drnaso’s nomination has again brought the genre to debate amongst literature lovers.

Sabrina tells the story of a young woman whose murder, captured on video, and goes viral on the social media, leading to fake news, conspiracy theories and the terror of the internet age. One of the Man Booker judges said of Sabrina:

We all read it and were blown away by it…the graphic novel has increasingly become front and centre in terms of storytelling.

Contrast this adulation with Sam Leith’s cryptic comment that this exercise is an ‘aesthetic nonsense’:

It was cultural cringe that made people think comics need to be rebranded as novels to be respectable. They don’t. And nor does a Man Booker nomination ‘elevate’ comics; it just muddies what the prize is for. Sabrina deserves to win all sorts of prizes. It seems perfectly possible it will be a better book, a better piece of storytelling, a higher artistic achievement than the eventual Man Booker winner. But it won’t be a better novel.

Sam Leith should know, for he was a member of the 2015 Man Booker Jury.

So, has the graphic novel eventually found its way to literary acclaim? If Bob Dylan’s song lyrics can be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, why can’t graphic novels be considered for the Man Booker? After all, literature, like language, is not something static; it widens its horizons in the course of time to encompass in its fold new genres. Restricting that flow will tantamount to stifling creativity. The purists, though, have their reservations. The jury is not yet out; in the meantime, the intense debate continues.

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