Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Great novels need great readers: a note on graphic novels

The other day, somebody tried to explain to some people from work my suspicion of graphic novels. Unfortunately, before I had had chance to correct them, certain lines were thrown at me: You can’t just condemn every one! (meaning every graphic novel). But it’s as valid as any other art form! Once I had a chance to explain that I was neither condeming every graphical novel nor do I believe that it is not a valid art form, my colleagues calmed down … and left the room. Still, it enabled me to find out for myself, as I improvised on my suspicion, what I really think, again.

The reason why I am so doubtful that graphical novels can also be powerful literary works is down to one reason (which might well also be an assumption): there has yet to be published either a graphical novel of sufficient literary distinction or, perhaps more importantly, a review/essay that speaks powerfully for such a novel (and I mean specifically for that novel’s literary distinction). Perhaps you know of one.

It might be said (rather than argued) that only literary idiot savant like me would need a review to convince me that a graphic novel was worth reading and gave the Novel in general a powerful new direction. But I don't think so. Great novels often require great readers. From what I've read so far, people want literary cache without having the slightest clue what it means (and so, like David Baddiel in The Times, make all kinds of spurious definitions).

For convenience, I’ll turn to a negative example. One reason why the Lit Blog Co-Op’s first Read This! choice got such a mixed response was due, I think, to the recommendation: it is like a forum rave for a brand of tranquiliser! One really needs more than this. The minority opinion helped by filling in some of the smiling blanks.

So, where are the great readers of the graphic novel?

PS: in order to give an impression of open-mindedness, I am currently, er, looking at V for Vendetta by Moore & Lloyd.

13 comments:

  1. I've been planning on writing a post in regards to your last graphic novel post (I guess I'll add this to the references), but I'm curious here. When you talk about a graphic novel being a "literary work" are you defining literary as "engagement at the deepest level" (as you defined what you look for in literary fiction in a previous post)?

    If "literary" and "literature" are about writing, then it is perhaps misguided to apply the concept of literary to comics. While comics include writing, they are not exclusively about the writing and often only slightly about the writing. One can't discount the images, the pictoral vocabulary and grammer, that is used. Which is not to say I don't think comics can have "enagagement at the deepest level" (though defining that statement along could take some parsing).

    Would you call a painting "literary"? Or a film?

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  2. "Graphic novel": originally a marketing term, then a shaky definition of comics. Steve is, I feel, stressing the "novel" part far too strongly.

    It's always hard to learn the grammar of a new art form... If I were to attend a modern dance performance, I'd probably be a lot like Steve here with comics: "Come on then, impress me."

    There's such a resistance (owing to whatever) to the nature of the experience that the doubtful newbie misses the whole point.

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  3. I suspect that "V for Vendetta" won't convince you; it was, after all, written by a 23-year-old anarchist. Moore's "From Hell" is certainly more mature.

    If you can find it, Richard McGuire's 8 page "Here" is as good a graphic story as has been constructed. In lieu of that, David B.'s "Epileptic" is a favorite of mine, and one I've been meaning to write about for a while.

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  4. Thanks for the comments.

    If the graphical 'novel' is a misnomer, then all this talk of snobbery is wrongheaded too. So I won't mention them again! I hope the commentators don't either; I'm really tired of reading about 'literary snobs' because they don't choose comics or childrens' books to win literary prizes.

    I like the sound of 'Here'! Maybe reading that I might not miss the whole point. V for Vendetta was recommended by a friend and it is a bit overwhelming in size at least.

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  5. Graphic novels will become an established "art" form when it has a canon. So far it has Maus. What else?

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  6. I think part of the problem is definition. "Graphic novel" has been used as means to say "a long self-contained narrative in comics form" as opposed to a short comic or a pamphlet. "Novel", as I see it, in GN is meant as an analogy of relative length.

    The long form comic really only has a history going back about 30 years. Not long for a large canon to develop.

    This is good short introduction to the term's history and current usage from Time's Andrew Arnold:

    http://www.time.com/time/columnist/arnold/article/0,9565,542579,00.html

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  7. Eddie Campbell's (Revised) Graphic Novel Manifesto" is also worth a browse. From the accompanying interview:

    Q: I can think of a lot of reasons to think of the comics industry as a cultural embarrassment, but what are yours?

    A: I think the idea of superheroes in its essence makes a good kind of literature for the very young. I would say that in an ironic form, as in Watchmen, it can be used to craft a very intelligent view of the world. But on the whole, the superhero read and taken seriously by an adult readership represents an epidemic of self-deception.

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  8. More from me:

    http://www.madinkbeard.com/archives/literarygrap.html

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  9. Steve said he has yet to find, "perhaps more importantly, a review/essay that speaks powerfully for such a novel."

    Graphic novels essentially speak for themselves. That may be the source of the problem: They are accessible.

    The idea that the proof will not be found in such a novel itself, but in an essay about it, is disturbing, to say the least.

    This suggests that the power or value of a work lies in the ritualistic dance between author and critic.

    Should a legitimate piece of artwork necessarily wear a mantle of criticism about its shoulders as a badge of authenticity?

    As fo the "epidemic of self-deception" that ismo mentioned, this is the complaint that is always leveled against science fiction in general: It often contains things that are known to be impossible, or that just might never happen.

    The objection achieves nothing, for all fiction is entirely untrue. The "epidemic of self-deception" began with Defoe, at least. Grown people spending hours reading lies about a man on a desert island, a man who never existed! Wasting time when there's work to be done!

    Fiction is nothing other than an epidemic of deception and self-deception. I deceive myself every time I sympathize with a fictional character.

    The person who issued this comment just has a visceral disinclination to enjoy this type of story.

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  10. Thimmy, I didn't say it depended on an essay. I said the apparent lack of one is a sign. The reader is a critic as he or she reads, so this lack suggests a GN hasn't had the kind of impact on a reader to make them want to respond and spread the word.

    I tend to agree with you about the epidemic of self-deception, although one has to draw the line when people stamp their feet when told that Santa Claus doesn't exist.

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  11. I guess it just takes time for these things to filter through to the sort of people who would a)write an essay on the artistic merit of graphic novels (not just literary merit) and b)be able to get it puplished in the sort of periodical/journal that major critics would take note of.

    I think, in about ten years time, there might be a lot more of the 'of artistic merit' kind of graphic novel to warrant a strong critical interest in more than just the comic field. Until then, literary and art critics aren't going to take much notice beyond the 'oh hey, Maus and Sandman are actually for grown up people two, right?'

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  12. Anonymous12:04 pm

    Omphh! Yeikkkkes! The literary content is obvious. Who are you kidding supporting this as literature? If it is the conceptual aspect this type of writing inspires this is purely imaginary supported by pictures. An emotional trip, worthless in literary terms. Literature, good literature, paints the picture and has no need of art in the psyical sense. Is it the syntax? No, surely not!
    Like all minority groups the desire to appear 'normal' is the driving force in the attempts to substansciate taste. We all have differing needs let us not confuse the boundries by being too liberal.

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  13. It is possible that Jimmy Corrigan : The smartest kid on earth is by Cris Ware is that book you are looking for.

    ReplyDelete

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