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thoughts & musings :: CCC

Thursday, 14 September 2006

Wham! Pow! Isn't it time we killed off 'graphic novel'?

Before we look forward to the grisly and agonising death of the term 'graphic novel,' we should allow its short and futile life to flash before its eyes one last time as we look back to the reason why people saw the need to hash together this ill-fitting moniker in the first place. Many early long strip cartoon books have retrospectively been daubed with the term 'graphic novel' upon reprint in an attempt to jump on the rickety bandwagon of this supposedly cool label. Some ludicrous claims have also been made of cartoons appearing in newspapers way back in the late 1800s as being early graphic novels. However, the first contemporary usage of the term appears to have arisen around the early 70s.

So what is a graphic novel?

Now, fans of graphic novels, please look away now and read a bit of spiderman or something... okay, the rest of you... it's a comic. A long one, but don't laugh, these comics are not funny at all... they are very, very serious indeed and don't you forget it.

Now because a lot of misunderstood young people didn't want to explain their comics to their prehistoric parents and hated the way people looked down on the term 'comic' they decided to conjure up a far more grown-up and mature sounding name to call their comics... and so they decided to call them 'graphic novels.'

Aww, bless.

Okay, let's try and put the flippancy down for a tiny while and pretend there's a serious debate to be had here. Yes, it is true that many of the works that fall under the term 'graphic novel' are not childish comics. They are longer highly-finished artistic works with much deeper storylines that explore mature themes.

So readers of these 'more mature' comics felt patronised and looked down upon for being seen as reading comics. But why did the originators of this term demonstrate their own ignorance by hijacking a completely inappropriate term to try and wrap some borrowed respectability around these publications?

Even many within the comic industry flinch away from the term 'graphic novel' and treat it as a shallow marketing ploy.

A novel is an extensive work of fictional prose that explores the depth of the human character and mines the complexities of human thought. Does a graphic novel offer the same rich texture of cognitive material on a parallel with the great literary novel?

A novel has no visual information to impart and so stokes the readers imagination in order to paint a vivid panorama of the world in which its plot unfolds. Part of the skill of the graphic novel is the artist's skillful depiction of the scenes and characters that populate the framed rows within the pages. As soon as you look at the first square of the comic strip then the scene is already painted within our mind and we quickly move into the speech and dialogue of characters and events that are displayed for us to witness. A novel starts with the blank emptiness of the completely uninformed mind and slowly drips information into the brain, word by word, and as dark blindness fades over time the entire picture emerges in full solidity. The scenes of a 'graphic novel' are presented flat, as is -- they are merely viewed. The scenes in a novel have to be read, contemplated, interpreted and imagined.

So are 'graphic novels' shallow childish pieces of worthless pulp?

No, there are some very deep and intricate plots that deserve respect. But these aren't novels. In just the same way that any movie based upon a novel isn't a film novel. A novel turned into a film is properly referred to as an adaptation. Why do we call them this? Because the methods of presenting the plot and characterisation within each are worlds apart. A novel will pause outside of time to explore a single notion of thought for many pages in a way a film cannot achieve. Similarly a panoramic vista of an epic scene upon the big screen can present a vast experience instantaneously that a novel would have to take a long time to paint an accurate image of.

But are the subtle nuances deftly displayed in the subtle expressions of a skilled actor shallow just because we are shown the scene and not left to visualise it for ourselves? Obviously not. Films can be very deep and thought provoking, but the mechanisms of how they unfold plot and characters are a world apart from the way in which a novel imparts its contents. Everyone that watches the film will see the same lead character. Everyone that reads the same novel will see an entirely different lead character.

And while we have films under our scrutiny, lets us draw graphic novels alongside for a comparison between the two. Both films and graphic novels present the characters and action visually and in both we view the scene from an angle and distance selected by the creator.

So there is a much greater link between 'graphic novels' and films. Should we maybe call them 'illustrated screenplays' or 'storyboards'?

If the whole point of the term was to prevent people looking down upon the art form then why steal a highly-regarded word from the literary community and hence invite these past masters at sharpened criticism to compare mature comics side-by-side with the likes of Joyce and Kafka?

So what of the term 'novel'? Nowadays its meaning has been diluted down to simply be used to refer to a long fictional book, but its true meaning is far more sepcific. Up until the 18th Century, the predominant fictional works were romances. These were long epics that told of fantastical tales of brave warriors in distant lands. At around this time some writers began producing works that featured far more ordinary aspects of everyday life and so generally explored the inner workings of man (thoughts, emotions, motivations etc.). The term novel, literally meaning "new" from nouvelle (French) or "novella" (Italian), was used to distinguish this new form of literature from the traditional romances. In simple terms, a romance was a long work of fictional prose where extraordinary characters did extraordinary things and a novel was a long work of fictional prose where ordinary characters did ordinary things.

So, when we think of the plots and characters to most 'graphic novels,' is there maybe a far more accurate name that has perhaps been overlooked? Are these illustrated works actually 'graphic romances'?

But try telling the fans of 'graphic novels' that what they are in fact reading is technically a graphic romance.

Their reaction?

It's comic.