In Defense of Comics

Comics Theory

But first, a brief history of what the fuck I’m talking about:

Commercial use of the term “graphic novel” first happened in 1976 (“graphic story” was used in the ‘60s). “Comix,” (the “X” refers to many comix’s prohibited, bawdy content) arose in the ‘60s as an artist-led genre rebelling against the government regulation and censorship of comics. These were largely separate terminological developments, although one of the first comics marketed as a “graphic novel” was considered to be underground (Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger).

Like most advertising terms, “graphic novel” did not give me much pause. It was only in 2010, when I took a class with Ariel Schrag (called “The Graphic Novel,” ironically) that I even began to think about it. Ariel, author of a number of works, Awkward, Definition, Potential, and Likewise, mentioned that she preferred that her work be called “comics.” I did not, and still don’t, assume that Ariel’s comment reflects the opinion of all comics creators, but it certainly led me to consider why the term “graphic novel” exists if authors do not want to use it.[1]

A couple of weeks ago, when Writer’s Bloq invited me to become comics editor and write this weekly column, I decided to do an experiment. I told one group of people that I was working on a “comics column,” a second group that it was an “alternative comics column,” and a third group that it was a “graphic novel column” (LOOK AT HOW MANY FRIENDS I HAVE AND NO THEY’RE NOT BOOKS I SWEAR HAHAHA oh god). The “comics” group needed clarification that the column was not about the visual evolution of Batman’s left foot from 1957 to 1982 (all of them, specifically those dates). “Alternative comics” didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, requiring that I develop a whole spiel about Art Spiegelman (Spielgelman. Heh).

But the “graphic novels” group knew immediately what I meant–at least they had a more concrete idea than others did. Pre-Ariel I was a member of the that group, those who separate “comics” from the “true literature” of “graphic novels” lest the former term invoke memories of pulpy origins.Maus! Jimmy Corrigan! The Sandman! Persepolis! These could not possibly be lumped in with an industry that published work by Rob Liefeld.

I knew about the R. Crumb-led underground comix movement in the ‘60s-‘70s, but I never thought about whether “graphic novels” was a shift in the content and scope of comics the way that comix were. But whereas Comix was an artist-created term, “graphic novel” emerged from the hands of publishers rather than those of authors. “It’s okay,” the industry seemed to say, “Comics are for children. Graphic Novels, now those are art.” The term “novel” implies a legitimacy that “comics” just doesn’t. But by raising the status of that word, publishers de-legitimize artists like Ariel or Moore who don’t, for one reason or another, want to participate in the shift in labeling.

Unlike comix, there is no movement backing the term “graphic novels.” It’s a descriptor, not a legitimate introduction of new material[2] or a new attitude in the medium. Rather, “graphic novel” obscures and distances itself from the history of comics. The “graphic novel” is an orphan, not even acknowledging the high art (well, at least art historically significant) origins of modern sequential art. They’re meant to be products of how great we are now, how much smarter and newer and better we have become.

But guess what, kiddos? We may be able to work faster, but to presume that we are the first to parallel pictures and text is preposterous. Exceptionalism draws customers, though, and customers dictate (on behalf of publishers’ marketing departments) popular conceptions of the medium. I suggest we shirk off the term and accept the roots of sequential art instead of burying them so deep we forget they exist.

And so, with that, I present the Sunday Syndicate: a comics column.

[1] Watchmen (which is one of the works I do consider to be a true graphic novel formally [because of the textual interjections]) creator Alan Moore has stated that he’s not a fan of the term.[1a] He says, in an interview with Barry Kavanagh from 2000, that:

“The problem is that “graphic novel” just came to mean “expensive comic book” [and] tended to destroy any progress that comics might have made in the mid-’80s. The companies, the marketing people […] think in very short term measures and consequently they were more or less to blame for destroying whatever kind of momentum the comic book picked up in the ’80s by immediately using it predictably to sell a load of BatmanSpiderman shit. But no, the term “graphic novel” is not one that I’m over-fond of.”

Moore excuses the use of “novel” for a work like Maus because of its length, which I find sort of ridiculous. Comics should be labeled by their content/form (a mini-comic or web-comic is still a comic, the qualifier should be considered second), not their size. He also rags on superhero comics (I’m not really into them myself), which works to obscure historical developments of comics (I’ll discuss this more later).

[1a] Totally embarrassing, but I only came about this interview after I’d already written this column—we make many of the same points.

[2] wind signifying nothing blah blah

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