At some time or another in our lives, we’ve all read a comic book; be it Marvel or DC Comics, 2000AD or Bunty, at one point we’ve sat engrossed in the artwork and short stories to be found within its pages. So why, as adults do so many people now frown upon that medium we loved as children? Is it because they see them as a childish thing, or something that is read by those unable to cope with a ‘real’ book? To answer this we would first need to know what a graphic novel is and where it fits into society today.
Graphic novels are, simply defined, book-length comics, but surely it is much more than that. We only have to look at some of the topics covered within their pages to realize this. Sometimes they tell a single, continuous narrative from first page to last; sometimes they are collections of shorter stories, but always they seem to be a reflection on society at the time is was written and illustrated. They have a tendency to emphasize drama, adventure, character development, striking visuals and politics, rather than the romance or laugh-out-loud comedy found in our childhood reads.
It is not a secret that visual parodies, satires, political cartoons, and straightforward funny drawings have been around for centuries, but it took the rise of the newspaper industry in the late nineteenth century to bring comics into everyday American households. From newspaper funny pages rose magazines devoted entirely to comics and superhero stories; from these magazines rose book-length collections of previously published comics, and from some of these rose movies that grossed large amounts of money at the box office. However, most comics historians agree that the first real graphic novel was Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories published in 1978. Decidedly adult in its images, themes, and language, Eisner’s book spoke to the generation that had first grown up with superhero comics in the 1940s and 1950s. It should also be noted that, despite the signature telling our brain otherwise, Will Eisner had no connection with Disney. The only connection is that both men routinely drew with brushes, so they both have a brush-like style to their signatures.
Not every reader snubs the graphic novel though, and because of those who regard them as a guilty pleasure (myself included), the popularity of graphic novels is growing as more people become familiar with works in this appealing and diverse format. This is good news, as a thriving market for graphic novels and rich cross-cultural influences mean that more experimental, innovative, high-quality stories and art are available now than ever before. Readers, both acquainted with the graphic novel and those who are just discovering it, have a wide variety to choose from, so readership is no longer limited to fans of superhero escapades or slapstick humour, which is a good thing right? In addition, greater access to graphic novels—such as graphic novel collections in public, college and school libraries—certainly contributes to their current popularity.
Like every medium though, there will always be an Underground aspect. In the graphic novel world, comix artists like Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb inspired the early graphic novelists. (Comix, by the way, is an alternate spelling of comics that deliberately differentiated these artists from the respectable, Comics Code-obeying, mainstream comic books.) Many later graphic novel writers and artists got their start at places like Marvel and DC Comics drawing and writing superheroes like The Fantastic Four and X-Men. Comics writer Stephen Weiner considers Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986), Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1990) to be among the 100 great graphic novels public libraries should consider constantly having on their shelves. My personal favourite is Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (1982), and a hardcover copy of which I proudly own.
But is the term graphic novel just a snobbish way of telling people we still read comics? Possibly, but it’s not important to me as I like them whatever you call them. Author Daniel Raeburn has this to say on the subject:
“I snicker at the neologism (new word, expression or usage) first for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a ‘sanitation engineer’—and second because a ‘graphic novel’ is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine.”
And in response to writer Douglas Wolk’s quip that the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book is “the binding”, Bone creator Jeff Smith said, “I kind of like that answer. Because ‘graphic novel’… I don’t like that name. It’s trying too hard. It is a comic book. But there is a difference. And the difference is, a graphic novel is a novel in the sense that there is a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Reading back through this, I don’t think I actually answered any of the questions I posed at the beginning, well in my mind I don’t think I have. Maybe this, like everything else we read, is subject to taste and what is one man trash is anothers treasure. I, personally, like to be made to question my world sometimes when I read, and if it means I pick up a graphic novel as opposed to another type of book, to get the grey cells moving then I will. Ultimately though, like the adult the world sees that needs to be nourished, my inner child needs to be fed too; after all she is the one that stokes the fires of my imagination and dreams.