Comics and graphic novels – what’s in a name?

An essay by John Lechner

In the course of my work as an author, illustrator and comic artist, I have done much thinking on the subject of comics, graphic novels and picture books for children. It is for my own clarification that I’m putting down some thoughts on the matter, which are purely subjective, and may be taken with large quantities of salt.

To me, one of the most perplexing issues in bookmaking today is labels – what exactly is a comic book? Or a graphic novel? What is a picture book? It depends on who you ask. Everyone has a general idea in their head, which goes a bit like this – a picture book is something like Where The Wild Things Are, a comic book is Spiderman, a graphic novel is Persepolis. These are all great examples, but when you start taking a closer look, things aren’t that simple. Is The Dark Knight a comic book when it’s serialized, but a graphic novel when bound together? Are graphic novels defined by their seriousness? Their packaging? What would you call a picture book that’s a hundred pages long? Or one printed on newsprint?

Many people in the industry have strong opinions about these labels, but the uneasy truth is that there are no clear definitions, only collective opinions that change from time to time. The word “comic” has been used to describe everything from Tintin to Krazy Kat to Maus — and yet, the term still can’t get a seat in a restaurant (or a bookstore), where they must be called graphic novels to prove they are “real books”. Not so in countries like Japan, where the term Manga (translated literally as “humorous pictures”) covers an astounding array of comics and graphic fiction, both serious and silly, long and short, for adults and kids. The term does not have the limited association we Americans often give to the word “comics” as something frivolous, or “alternative”, for people who don’t have the attention span for “real” books. Despite a few notable exceptions and a Pulitzer Prize, the comic has long been banished to dimestore racks, independent comic shops, and underground presses.

Then something happened in the late 1990s to turn things around. Although underground comics had been doing interesting work for years, it was the popularity of manga (made easily available by the internet) that convinced bookstores to give comics a second look. The format, the length, the stories, the artwork of manga was totally fresh to young readers in the United States. (See Scott McCloud’s book Making Comics for an insightful analysis of what makes manga unique.) Kids and adults devoured them, and American publishers took note – they wanted a piece of the action. And yet, how could serious, stalwart book publishers produce comic books, which they had looked down on for years?

Thankfully, a new terminology emerged – the “graphic novel”. Now there was something that serious adults could approve of, unlike those silly comic books. Naturally, kids didn’t care what they were called, they knew what they liked. But the gatekeepers – librarians, bookstores, parents – suddenly could feel better about letting this new breed of comics into the lives of children (and adults for that matter) who craved them.

So the big American publishers started to put out their own graphic novels, often copying the Japanese format and style (occasionally substance too). And smaller publishers, who had been keen on comics for years, began to get more publicity and circulation than ever before. This was a great leap forward, and a godsend for those of us who had scoured comic book stores for years looking for something between the two outer extremes of American comics (banally mainstream or disturbingly edgy.) Like all popular culture, it’s a self-generating cycle – the more variety there is, the more readers, the more money is made, and the more new titles are produced. And it has only just begun to blossom.

Which brings us back to terminology. Most people think of graphic novels as “serious comics”. But even though the term has done wonders for the reputation and respectability of comics, it suffers the same flaw as the term “comic” – it is limiting in scope, and packed with preconceptions. Not all comics are graphic novels, and the terms should really be used (if at all) to describe format, rather than as a pseudonym for literary merit. Many comics are extremely serious, and can cover a much broader range than graphic novels, which are a specific (yet frustratingly vague) subset of comics. (For an interesting analysis of the terms from several viewpoints, visit Wikipedia.)

But then again, nearly every label is limiting – “fantasy” is a great example of a genre defined in the public eye by preconceived notions and blockbuster names. People think they know what a fantasy is. Yet change the label to “magic realism” and suddenly a book or author takes on an entirely different aura to the buyer, without a single word being read. Same book, different label. Are labels a necessary evil?

In a perfect world, we could break away from all this categorizing. I even dislike the term “picture book”, as it is so heavily laden with preconceptions – it’s no wonder the format has barely evolved in the last fifty years. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t innovative picture books being produced, but those are like rare seaglass on the beach, inevitably swallowed up by the pounding waves. When most people (outside the field) think of a “picture book” they think of a safe, gentle book for kids, of a particular size, length, number of words. If you break that expectation too harshly, you might get praise from critics, but it’s just as likely that buyers will shy away. The reverse cycle begins.

And so we have the reported death of the picture book in recent years, as it is squeezed out of bookstore shelves in favor of the more popular middle readers. Graphic novels are the new watchword in bookmaking, and for good reason – they are a breath of fresh air. And they are only the tip of the iceberg, in a potentially endless realm of visual storytelling. But will we ever enjoy that potential?

We are stuck in a collective bind, as a nation of consuming readers. When we pick up a book we have immediate expectations from the cover, the thickness, the number of pages, the publisher, the author – all before we read a single word. And if those expectations are not met, we are usually disappointed. In order for publishing to evolve at a pace with society (rather than its customary snail’s crawl) we would do well to either broaden our thinking of categories to make them more inclusive, or invent some new ones. I don’t want the graphic novel – and comics by extension – to be choked by the collar of respectability. Just as picture books have become precious objects to cuddle and fawn over, and novels have staked out genres that aren’t allowed to speak to one another, I sometimes worry that comics will reach the top of the mountain only to find no place left to go.

Perhaps we should create even more labels for the many forms of graphic storytelling? How about a term for “all age” picture books? Or picture book folktales for older readers? Or nonfiction comics? Or books based on films? Or, is it best to let these variations stand out as exceptions in their genre, and hope that they might broaden expectations in the future? (This is a hopeful but unlikely scenario – despite the countless authors who have experimented with the novel, when we pick one up today we expect something more like James than Joyce.)

And I have not even begun to discuss web comics and meta comics, which make the printed graphic novel seem almost quaint. I am certain that interactive fiction, which has never caught on with the general public, will finally reach its potential with web comics. And the fact that they don’t require Barnes & Noble to decide what the public reads is a definite plus.

For now, things are good – comics of all kinds are getting more shelf space and appreciation, and if it takes a fancy name for this to finally happen, huzzah for the shopkeep. But I hope this new appreciation for comics will be allowed to grow naturally, and not be forced into the mainstream. When I hear of established authors and artists being “recruited” by big publishers to create graphic novels, I’m both excited and wary, for comics are not an easy format to step into. If the resulting works do not meet with success, it will reflect poorly on the genre, and give the traditionalists reason to say, “I told you we should never have let comics into the bookstore!”

Well I say let them come, and let the readers decide. Comics are books too, even when stamped onto newsprint. We shouldn’t judge any book by its wrappings; it’s the story that counts, the window into the author’s soul. And don’t worry about labels – they’ll come off in the wash.

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(Originally published 2007)