A Comic by Any Other Name

Will Eisner’s A Contract with God was the first comic to be published as a graphic novel (though Eisner didn’t invent the term and his wasn’t the first book-length comic). Since then the term has become more and more popular, and arguably, more and more of a pet peeve for those, who like myself, know the difference between a graphic novel and a trade. Looking beyond the pet peeve aspect, the term has become so widely used—all in the name of marketing—that it doesn’t really mean anything at all.

A graphic novel, by my definition, is a book-length comic book that tells a complete narrative, such as one would read in a prose novel. Most people, however, would consider any perfect bound comic book to be a “graphic novel.” And when I say most people, I include most publishers. Comic book publishers have been only too happy to refer to their trades—perfect bound books collecting series of previously published comic books—as graphic novels. Why? Because it helps them sell comics to people who would otherwise not buy them.

contract-with-god

In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Whether comics are printed in saddle-stitched (stapled) floppies or perfect bound trades, they are still comics by McCloud’s definition. Which is why it drives me up the wall when I hear people insisting that they don’t read comics, they read graphic novels. This is not only a moronic statement, it’s an elitist one. Perfect bound comics may be easier to store and look nicer on your bookshelf, but the content is not altered by the format.

For a couple of years I worked in a comic book store and every time someone came in and asked me where the Batman graphic novels were—when they were really looking for trades—I nearly had a freak out. But to quote a professor of mine, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to be a little more zen.” In thinking about the term “graphic novel” and what it actually implies, I’ve accepted that it may sometimes be a suitable term for describing a serialized work.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word novel derives from the Italian novella, and originally meant “one of the tales or short stories in a collection.” Later, in the seventeenth century, it came to mean a “long work of fiction.” Merriam-Webster currently defines a novel as “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.” Neither of the current definitions excludes the possibility of first publishing the work as a serial. Charles Dickens did it all the time, and the publishing model has continued into the present day, proving a natural fit for the Internet and smart phones.

understanding-comics-scott-mccloud

So it isn’t necessarily correct to say that a comic that was first serialized in the floppy format isn’t a graphic novel. (Though it does exclude it from being called an original graphic novel or OGN). But I would still argue that the term only applies if the comic in question tells a complete narrative—which isn’t meant to exclude works that fit into a larger series, as in a series of novels—and is done by a consistent creative team. The term should not apply when the book collects a series of short comic narratives—what in prose would be called short stories—or when there are regular changes to the creative team. If we define graphic novel to mean any comic that follows the format of a novel—serialized or not—then it would be acceptable to refer to some trades—like Y the Last Man for example—as graphic novels.

When it comes to fiction, debating the term “graphic novel” is murky ground, and there’s plenty of room for argument. But what I find stranger than comic book publishers slapping “graphic novel” on trades, is publishers slipping the term onto works of non-fiction.

ad-new-orleans

Guy Delisle has created a number of non-fiction comics depicting his time spent in various countries: Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. All of these comics are published by Drawn & Quarterly, and most of them, with the exemption of Jerusalem, are referred to both as graphic novels and travelogues on the publisher’s website. On the back cover, Jerusalem is labeled with both “comics & graphic novels” and “non-fiction.” Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon) is also a work of non-fiction, marked “current affairs, graphic novel” on the back cover, though on its website Pantheon refers to the book as “graphic non-fiction.” These are only two examples, but seeing comics simultaneously marketed as works of non-fiction and as graphic novels is not uncommon. Some people even use the term “non-fiction graphic novel.”

Non-fiction isn’t the only genre outside fiction being squeezed under the graphic novel label. Poetry sometimes is as well. It’s hard to say what the best term for this kind of work is, since some poetry is quite visual and is still just called poetry, while other works, such as those of Sonja Ahlers, are called graphic novels. It’s also tricky to label this kind of work because poetry can have a narrative, and if, for instance, Ahlers books are telling a story with words and pictures—albeit words and pictures juxtaposed in jarring ways—then who’s to say that’s not an avant-garde graphic novel? The question of what to call a collection of visual poetry pulls us into a bigger discussion of genres, and where/how the lines between them blur.

sonja-ahlers-2

The term graphic novel may properly apply to serialized comics in some instances, and perhaps even to books of visual poetry, but I do think the term is generally applied too liberally, especially by publishes eager to market to people who are put off by the term comic.

How do you define the term graphic novel? Do you think it is being used properly? Can you give examples of comics that you do or don’t think should be called graphic novels?

Managing editor of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) and a total comic book geek. Hearts Star Wars, TMNT, the Whedonverse, Canadian writing and My Little Pony.

  • arielletje

    I had always been confused about TPB vs graphic novel vs comic book. Thanks for sorting it out 😉

    • Chelsea Novak

      The easiest thing is just to call them all comics. 🙂

      • arielletje

        Yeah pretty much. But then I worry that I’m not as linguistically accurate as I could be 😛