‘Graphic novel’ is a term used by literary folk who aren’t brave enough to admit that they read comic books. That’s the top, bottom, middle, and sticky innards of it. They want to be perceived as ‘intellectual’, and are worried that reading comics might ruin their image. The pillocks.
If you haven’t already noticed, the term is one of my pet hates.
“But Liam, it’s because, y’know, graphic novels aren’t like comic books, they’re, like, really deep and stuff. They’re more like novels, with graphics, yeah? Nothing like comic books at all. They might both have drawings, and speech bubbles, and panels, and stuff like that, but there’s a big difference between them: I read graphic novels, but I don’t read comic books. Remember, I’m all literary and that.”
Perhaps my bile is a case of familiarity breeding contempt. I used to be one of them. I used to get angry when someone would refer to Watchmen as a comic book. I would get frustrated when asked to explain the distinction between The Killing Joke and most serial Batman comics (my explanation pretty much boiled down to “Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, so that makes it a graphic novel”). And I got positively muddled when my housemate would request that I explain why The Beano couldn’t be classed as a ‘graphic novel’; I couldn’t, and I bet you can’t either.
“But… but it’s obviously a graphic novel because it’s so metatextual!”
There’s only so much doublethink I could do before I had to face facts: The distinction between comic books and graphic novels is artificial, and there’s absolutely nothing preventing a comic book from having literary merit.
I’m still big on my literature. I’ve read (and enjoyed) Dostoevsky, Dickens, Shakespeare, Orwell, Vonnegut, Proust and Baudelaire. All of them have pride of place on my bookshelf, right there alongside my comic books. And why not? Why can’t comic books have artistic and philosophical value?
But no. A good comic book can’t just be a good comic book. It has to be pigeon-holed, segregated, made acceptable for the lit scene. Comic books go sit at the back of the bus, the front’s reserved for graphic novels on their way to their lonely single shelf at Waterstones. It’s pure intellectual vanity.
No other medium has this problem. In other mediums, the good and the bad are put into the same bracket. Catch-22 and The Da Vinci Code are both classed as novels. The Wire and The Only Way is Essex both come under the TV Shows heading. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Auld Lang Syne are lumped together as poetry. Braid and Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust are both video games. Why should comics be any different?
But I can’t defend all comic books on the grounds of creativity.
Maybe it’s the superheroes. I must admit, it riles me up something fierce to see these big incestuous crossover events like ‘Civil War’ or ‘Marvel Zombies’ getting in the way of actual creative work. But it’s not all about them. Honest. I once read one writer state that it is ridiculous to think that all comics need to be about superheroes; it’s like thinking that all novels need to be about nurses.* There’s a lot of interesting work that has, and is, been produced without a single lycra costume in sight. That’s not to say a superhero comic is incapable of being creative, that’s like saying no genre piece in any medium is capable of innovation, but you do have to wonder just what Marvel hopes to achieve when Spiderman meets the X-Men for the 657th time.
(*I can’t remember who said this, I have a feeling it was Garth Ennis, but a thorough Google search left me empty-handed.)
That being said, the medium has come a long way since its funny page origins. Like any art form, it has matured and developed thanks to the cumulative efforts of passionate and gifted individuals. You don’t need to call them ‘graphic novels’ before they are able to handle issues with tact and perceptiveness. I honestly believe that Maus is the single greatest artistic response to the Holocaust, and that Transmetropolitan #8 is one of the most affecting and human responses to immigration and culture shock that has ever been committed to print. Isn’t it about time that the image crisis stopped and comics become accepted for what they are?
At the very least, it will mean that I have to find some other triviality to get in a radge about.