“Graphic novel”? Sod off and buy a beret, you pretentious berk.

‘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.

Liam

15 Comments

Can’t argue with that! But your link about Stewart Lee has made me so very sad. :(

So all comics/graphic novels are of the same status, but your “literature” consists only of authors from the traditional literary canon. You say that The Da Vinci Code is classed as a novel, but when you talk about literature it’s “Dostoevsky, Dickens, Shakespeare, Orwell, Vonnegut, Proust and Baudelaire”. You say you see comics as having the same status as literature, but still differentiate between them. It’s kind of a contradiction. Interesting too, that you choose what is traditionally perceived as the low-brow term for comics rather than the supposedly pretentious higher brow term “graphic novel”.

If you set the two things on the same level, why does “literature” get to keep its high-brow term, while “comic” is limited to its low-brow one? I’ve been taught that literature is anything written. That means that comic books aren’t on the same level as your literature… They already ARE literature. Literally, comics are graphic novels. They’re stories with graphics. Refusing to use the term is just as snobby as applying the term to only a few comics. Shouldn’t you reclaim the descriptor? Although the Beano would be a collection of graphic short stories

Just my thoughts… I’ve never actually read any comics/graphic novels, so generally don’t worry over what I call them…

    I think you’ve (perhaps intentionally) overlooked my point.

    As well as enjoying their work immensely, I chose those authors for the sake of polemic. I enjoyed reading their work and they have received an almost universal acclaim. Though I’m pretty sure Vonnegut and Heller aren’t in any literary canon just yet, sadly. They are authors who are generally (and instantly) recognised for having produced well-written and incisive pieces of work. I felt my argument needed to draw parallels with them to show that there is no shame in recognising that comic books are literature. I’ve listed this blog under the ‘literature’ category, haven’t I?

    As with The Da Vinci Code, it’s recognised as being a bit shit—a description you may well wish to object to. It brings connotations of poor quality, and I agree with the bad press. I didn’t want to cite an obscure author I dislike whom some would have to Google. That would just serve as a pointless distraction away from my main argument.

    I didn’t write this piece to argue that comic books aren’t literature. Nor did I write it to challenge any perceived notions of high and low literature. I wrote it to express my opinion that ‘graphic novel’ is unnecessary. That’s it. There’s only so much I can cover, and indeed wanted to cover, in one blog. How far were you hoping I would go, exactly? I could have argued against the term ‘comic book’, saying there should only be ‘literature’. Then, I could have challenged the notion of ‘literature’, arguing that there should be only ‘text’. But why stop there? Maybe I have gone on to challenge the notion of ‘text’, arguing that it should be placed in the wider category of ‘things’.

    With regard to the history of comics, the term ‘graphic novel’ is fairly recent. Not only is it pretentious, it is also incredibly restrictive. It implies that comics can never be more than novels with illustrations. I believe that comics have far more to offer than that. They have their own conventions and quirks that can be utilized and subverted for artistic effect. As such, I don’t see the term ‘comic book’ as lowbrow at all, and I don’t see my rejection of the term ‘graphic novel’ as snobbish. I would suggest that you read a few comics to see what I mean.

      I’m not saying the Da Vinci code isn’t shit. My point is that literature can be. The fact that something is shit doesn’t make it any less literary.
      I’d say the Western canon is the list of books which has affected and shaped Western Culture. It consists, also, of books which are supposed to be ‘highbrow’.

      I use the terms highbrow and lowbrow in order to define the boundaries as they stand in the common view. My point is not that you see “comics” as lowbrow, but that reacting so strongly against an admittedly pretentious attempt to make comic books “highbrow”, inadvertently adds credence to the distinctions as they stand. If there is no high/low distinction, what does it matter whether someone calls comics “graphic novels”? Surely the best response is not to decry a perfectly valid literal descriptor, but to destroy the constructed boundaries it’s used to reinforce.

      The term graphic novel is synonymous with the term comic book. My point is not that you should always use one rather than the other, but that they’re both perfectly valid, and it seems counterproductive to limit yourself to one term. If the graphic novel is a specific subgenre of comic books, it’s not limiting to use it.
      Graphic novels are graphic novels. They’re also comics, literature, texts. They’re also things. None of those terms are invalid, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

      Hope I’m not annoying you… You may not have intended to write about the imaginary boundary between high and lowbrow literature… But in talking about an attempt to make comics serious and highbrow, you kind of did. I just thought it was interesting, sorry.

      It would take a whole book to bring down any constructed boundaries in literature, and it’s far beyond my intellectual capacity. Plus I doubt people would be particularly interested to read that.

      Though it is disputed in some camps, it is widely believed that the term ‘graphic novel’ was created in the 70′s by Will Eisner, who had been struggling to get his work taken on by publishers. He thought that calling his work a ‘graphic novel’ would make it sound more credible to traditional publishing houses. That’s it, a simple ruse to get the attention of a stuffy publisher. It wasn’t so much the creation of a subgenre as an artist’s last-ditch attempt to get their piece noticed. Since then, a lot of work has been done by the avant garde comic movement, including Eisner and Spiegelman, to show the potential of the comic book medium. To then separate some comics on the grounds that they are more intellectually stimulating undermines what they had worked so hard to achieve.

      My point wasn’t so much that the term ‘graphic novel’ is an attempt to give comic books highbrow credibility, therefore lifting them out of some imaginary lowbrow mire. My point was that comic books don’t need a new descriptor, especially not one as artificial as ‘graphic novel’. They’re not lowbrow, nor do they need elevating or rescuing by academia. They are what they are. They are art, literature, pulp, drama, and whatever else you want to throw at them. And that’s how it should be.

      What I was reacting strongly against is people that use ‘graphic novel’ to make themselves look highbrow. It’s more a reflection on the person than the medium. And it’s not synonymous with ‘comic book’ at all; it has very different and damaging connotations. So yes, I would say it matters. If it doesn’t, why argue?

      And no, you haven’t annoyed me at all. It’s good hearty intellectual exercise to have your ideas challenged. I’m very passionate about this, as I am about bringing down archaic literary divides. But to have implemented your ideas (many of which I agree with) into my piece would have completely castrated the argument.

Ok, that might’ve been epic procrastination right there…

do you remember what your dying argument was before you converted?-

“graphic novels sometimes have hard backed covers and comic books do not.”
” does that not mean Astrix the Gaul and the Beano annual are graphic novels?” came my repost.

if i were to take a photo of your face at that moment it would it would define epiphany and defeat. i imagine it was much akin to the reaction of Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus when he realised operation Uranus was successful and the entire German 6th army had no option but surrender.

    Instead of dignifying your point with a response, I shall offer pedantry.

    It’s ‘riposte’, not ‘repost’.

    (And yes, I do remember. My brain knew you’d made a valid point and I’d backed myself into a corner. Damn the Beano for not producing work that’s more widely accepted in literary circles.)

      I also did not use capital letters at the start of sentences. I will surely burn in Hell. :-)

      Did you know that Dundee has a statue to Desperate Dan in the town centre, which does show cartoon are a respected part of English culture. in fact the Beano and Dandy were a big part of my childhood; i cant imagine my family holidays without them. In fact thinking about it Astrix the legionnaire was probably the first book i have bought with my pocket money, my brother and i would pester our local library to stock a complete selection. i think that that coming to the conclusion that Graphic novels are a terrible genre definer because they would have to include Astrix, is just like saying literature is a bad phrase because it would have to include A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, maybe what i’m trying to say (drunk) is just because something is meant for children doesn’t mean it cant be any less engaging or entertaining or influential or important for it’s intended audience.

      A very very good point, Tom.

So Lucy, having not read any comics, you’re trying to tell Liam, who has read loads, how he should react to the pretentious term “graphic novel”. You say he should reclaim it to destroy the distinction, he thinks he should reject it to destroy it. I think firstly, and most importantly, it’s up to him, and secondly, he knows better than you.

    I wouldn’t say I know better than Lucy, nor is the responsibility of naming the medium up to me. As brilliant as that latter part would be.

    Though I really do not want to do some ironic reclamation. Then I’d be no better than the hipsters and the graphic designers who use ‘graphic novel’ as a valid genre descriptor.

“Comics” is the medium. “Graphic novel” is the form. It’s simply a marketing term to describe comics in book form. Both terms are terrible misnomers but I use them as people understand what they mean. I wish they were called “albums” like in France.

Kurt Vonnegut-Lee 28/08/2013 at 5:44 pm

“Superheroes” are the last refuge of 1930s fascism.

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