Earlier this week, two ladies I work with were discussing The Walking Dead TV show; they know I’m not a horror fan, in general, and were surprised when I was familiar with it. “Well,” I said, “It’s based on a comic book,” because they know about my obsession with the medium. “Based on a graphic novel,” one of them corrected me.
I didn’t push the subject, but it was a perfect illustration of how problematic the very term for the medium is. Since we’re called the League of Comics Librarians, we obviously have taken a stance on our preferred term. I love comics, I love how they work, I love their history, and I want to take back the term, rather than hoping it will go away.
The first problem with “graphic novel” as a term is that, as it’s commonly used, it means nothing. Will Eisner’s amazing Contract With God is the first work commonly referred to as a graphic novel*, mostly to differentiate it from the ongoing serial fiction that he commonly produced and that was dominant at the time. When other works started appearing that were bound as books (rather than pamphlets), had one creator (rather than a team), and had a clear beginning, middle, and end, they used the term, too. Those are important distinctions, and determine what some people want to read, but they’re not clear or definite. The Walking Dead, for example, is a comic book, rather than a graphic novel by all the criteria we’ve brought up so far. It is published each month as a stapled pamphlet (though its publisher also collects it in bound editions), it has two creators, and it’s ongoing since 2003.The only way that the designation as a graphic novel makes sense is if it’s an indicator of quality or maturity. Comics production is a spectrum, ranging from the individual creator published by Harper Collins on one end to Marvel’s endless teams of artists and writers, all pumping out issues every month. We should be able to talk about works from any part of that spectrum as great comics or awful comics, adult comics or kids’ comics. Coming up with two different terms for it is just making the same mistake as libraries have done with “literature” versus “fiction.” Where’s that line?
The second problem with “graphic novel” grows out of the first one: it is an attempt to legitimize something that I think is already perfectly legitimate. When a critic praised Neil Gaiman, writer of The Sandman, saying that he didn’t write comic books, but graphic novels, he answered that the reviewer “meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” To try to force a different term on the medium is to imply that there is a deficiency in the history and creates the impulse to go back and see what we can salvage, saying “Well, this one is obviously ACTUALLY a graphic novel; we can call it that now.” I don’t want to create that false schism, depriving readers of the whole history of the medium.
Let’s embrace comics for what they are and call them that, so we can have a meaningful discussion about what they are and what they can do, instead of endlessly nitpicking over what belongs in our camp and what’s in theirs. It’s all our camp, and it’s all ripe for the reading.
*This is one of those things that people REALLY enjoy arguing about. Nobody agrees on what the first graphic novel was, who used the term first, or even what one really is, so we’re not getting into it here.
**I frequently refer to comics as a “medium” because it is the lesser of multiple evils. I actually prefer “genre” in the Bakhtinian sense, like the novel or epic is a genre, but people tend to assume I mean it in the “mystery” or “romance” sense, which is an invalid comparison. There are, after all, plenty of mystery or romance comics.