Comics books

I’ve been assembling materials for the Linguistics in the Comics project this summer at Stanford, starting with some bibliography on comics, cartoons, and graphic novels. That led me to a conceptual and terminological issue that came up in connection with Judith Thurman’s recent New Yorker piece on Alison Bechdel, centering on the label graphic novel.

First, the little bibliography. The central items are the Eisner and McCloud books, which are quite different in tone: Eisner’s books are lectures for courses, while McCloud’s are themselves entertaining graphic non-fiction (comics about comics).

Duncan, Randy & Matthew J. Smith. 2009. The power of comics: History, form, and culture. Continuum. [introductory text in Comic Studies]

Eisner, Will. 2008. Comics and sequential art. (Rev. ed. of 1985 bk.) W.W. Norton.

– 2008. Graphic storytelling and visual narrative. (Rev. ed. of  1996 bk. Graphic storytelling) W.W. Norton.

Gravett, Paul. 2005. Graphic novels: Everything you need to know [U.S. title; U.K. title: Graphic novels: Stories to change your life]. Harper Design.

Heer, Jeet & Kent Worcester (eds.). 2009. A comic studies reader. Univ. Press of Mississippi. [materials for a course on Comic Studies]

McCloud. Scott. 1993. Understanding comics. HarperCollins.

– 2000. Reinventing comics. HarperCollins.

– 2006. Making comics: Storytelling secrets of comics, manga and graphic novels. Harper.

Sabin, Roger. 1996. Comics, comix & graphic novels: A history of comic art. Phaidon. [lavishly illustrated]

Wolk, Douglas. 2007. Reading comics: How graphic novels work. Da Capo.

And for a sampling of the material:

Brunetti, Ivan (ed.). 2006. An anthology of graphic fiction, cartoons, and true stories. Yale Univ. Press.

A lot of this literature is taken up with distinguishing various genres of artistic production, visual and verbal, and I’ll post on that in a while. But here, just a note on graphic novel, which appears in several of the titles in the references above.

But not in Thurman’s piece on Bechdel, where she uses graphic narrative and graphic memoir, with graphic ‘of or pertaining to drawing or painting’ (OED2) in combination with a head noun denoting the sort of work that Bechdel produces — narrative, that is, a story, and memoir, denoting a piece of autobiography. (Similarly, Eisner’s graphic storytelling and visual narrative.)

This is accurate, but it’s not current practice, where graphic novel (sometimes graphic fiction) is both broader than the more transparent alternatives — in that the works in question are not necessarily fictional — and more specific — in that these works are published as books in a specific format:

graphic novel, a full-length (esp. science fiction or fantasy) story published as a book in comic-strip format. (OED draft additions 1993)

The OED’s first cite is in fact from Eisner, in the title of his 1978 work:

A contract with God: and other tenement stories… A graphic novel.

Later cites (note that the first two have graphic novels in quotes, indicating that the expression was still new):

1983   N.Y. Times 5 Aug. c20/3   The second will focus on ‘graphic novels’, such as ‘Tintin’ and ‘Asterix’, which are selling up a storm throughout the world.

1986   Chicago Tribune 28 Aug. v. 1/5   One-shot ‘graphic novels’, printed on high-quality paper and retailing for, in some cases, upwards of $10.

1990   Rolling Stone 22 Mar. 76/4   Catalogs from America’s finest comics publishers, featuring stunning European graphic novels.

The Wikipedia entry illustrates the same simultaneous broadening and narrowing:

A graphic novel is a narrative work in which the story is conveyed to the reader using sequential art, either in an experimental design or in a traditional comics format. The term is employed in a broad manner, encompassing non-fiction works and thematically linked short stories as well as fictional stories across number of genres.

Graphic novels are typically bound in longer and more durable formats than familiar comic magazines, using the same materials and methods as printed books, and they are generally sold in bookstores and specialty comic book shops rather than at newsstands. Such books have gained increasing acceptance as desirable materials for libraries, which [books] were once ignored when titled or viewed as comic books.

(Notice the effort to separate the genre from traditional comic books, despite the shared visual style.)

A few graphic novelists (beyond Bechdel), with a variety of approaches, audiences, and subject matter: Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Harvey Pekar; not all of them have been comfortable with the graphic novel label.

The extension of novel and fiction from earlier uses, to cover not only fiction but also non-fiction narrative and narratives in the borderland between fiction and (auto)biography (biofiction and fictobiography, here and here), and not only longer forms but also shorter ones, has been noted, usually with dismay, by many commenters; Jon Lighter regularly laments these extensions, with examples, on ADS-L. (I don’t know where graphic exposition — as in cartoon presentations of technical subjects like statistics, astrophysics, history, linguistics, and of course comic studies — falls in this system of categorization. Do things like Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to Statistics, Shin Takahashi’s Manga Guide to Statistics, and McCloud’s books on comics count as “graphic novels” for some people? Or are they just graphic non-narrative non-fiction?)


11 Responses to “Comics books”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    I notice that you refer in the text to “comic books”, though your title is “comics books”.

  2. Tané Tachyon Says:

    I don’t know about Manga Guide to Statistics, but The Manga Guide to Databases, which I have, does have a storyline to it — a fairy is teaching a princess and her companion about databases and how to use them to manage the kingdom’s data.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Derek Wyckoff on Facebook:

    Since novels are fiction by definition — at least any definition I’ve found — I’d have to regard the examples of your final paragraph as not being novels, presence or absence of graphics notwithstanding. On the other hand, I’m also familiar enough with the publishing industry to know that they love labels, and would not be surprised if they labeled any long-form predominately graphic work intended for adult consumers as “graphic novels,” rather than worrying about what category it ought to fall into. (Unless they’re art books, since they can charge more for those.) Here’s a related question for you, if you haven’t contemplated it yet: are illustrated children’s books “graphic novels”—or “comics,” or both?

    My response:

    On illustrated children’s books: the practice of publishers and booksellers is to treat children’s books as a separate category, a practice that some authors (Maurice Sendak, in particular) have objected to.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Some background on earlier senses of graphic as in graphic novel: the history begins with the ‘draw, write’ sense of the graph- root from Greek. Eventually we get the metaphorical sense ‘producing by words the effect of a picture; vividly descriptive, life-like’ (OED2 , with cites from 1669 on), and then the extension of this ‘providing or conveying full, unexpurgated detail; expressly stated or represented; explicit, esp. in the depiction of sex or violence’ (draft additions Dec. 2002, with cites from 1856, 1927, 1969, and then more thickly). The comics sense is a return to ‘draw, write’, though it does produce an ambiguity in graphic novel, which can be understood as referring to vividness or to explicitly sexual, “adult”, content.

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    For people for whom graphic novel doesn’t necessarily convey fictionality, the composite has become non-subsective; a graphic novel isn’t necessarily a novel. Instead, it’s a resembloid composite; a graphic novel is like a novel in that it tells a story.

  6. Raymond Briggs « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] More on “graphic novels”, now in the person of Raymond Briggs, who straddles illustrated comic books for children and graphic novels (in the broad sense) for adults: Raymond Redvers Briggs (born 18 January 1934) is an English illustrator, cartoonist, graphic novelist and author, who has achieved critical and popular success among adults and children. He is best known for his story The Snowman, which is shown every Christmas on British television in cartoon form and on the stage as a musical. (link) […]

  7. In the comics « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] into superhero comics (aimed at boys and young men), though “art comics” (especially graphic novels) have been gaining ground for some years […]

  8. Ink on paper vs. paint on canvas « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] with respect to the newer medium of graphic novels / fiction / narratives: see some discussion here, both about the labels for such works and about their distinguishing characteristics, which include […]

  9. Banned comics | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] graphic novels, on 5/27/12: A few graphic novelists (beyond [Alison] Bechdel), with a variety of approaches, audiences, and […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: