What’s Your Opinion Of The Term “Graphic Novel”?

Published On August 25, 2009 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews, Pádraig's interviews

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(Borrowed from David S Carter’s Flickr.)

Our very own interview king Pádraig Ó Méalóid set this question last week on his live journal blog (and we linked to it then) but we thought it was well worth posting here on the FPI blog as well to let more folks see it. So with Pádraig’s permission we’re running it in full rather than linking to it. Over to Pádraig.

Most interviews I do consist of asking one person a number of questions. So, for a change, I’ve asked a number of people one question instead. And the question is, What’s your opinion of the term ‘Graphic Novel’? And the people I asked, along with thier answers, are below…

Neil Gaiman, novelist, comics writer, and bon vivant:
It is at moments like this Pádraig, that we remember what Dr Johnson said on the subject:

As far as I can tell, GRAPHIC NOVEL was a term coined by YAHOOS specifically to pester, irritate and likewise get the GANDER of MASTER EDDIE CAMPBELL, such that SMALL BOYS and STREET URCHINS are said to shout it at him in the street (Viz, Here Comes Master Campbell, Have you written or drawn another Graphic Novel today?). Persons of QUALITY do not utter it, preferring such terms as BIG COMICAL BOOK ALL BOUNDEN TOGETHER WITH A THICK SPINE or even A COLLEXION OF PAGES WITH PICTURES AND WORDS PRINTED IN SUCH A WAY THAT BOOKESHOPPES CAN SELL THEM TO THEIR PROFIT.

Todd Klein, the world’s greatest letterer:
I find it a useful term for book-size and book-length comics. I don’t use it for collections of monthly comics in general, preferring to call those ‘collected editions.’ Some projects, like Watchmen, seem worthy of the Graphic Novel name, even though they were originally published in comic-size instalments. After all, so were most of Charles Dickens’ novels.

David Lloyd, artist on V for Vendetta, as well as much else:
In this corner of the globe, an essential requisite to the task of progressing the image of strip art storytelling in the minds of the masses.

Bryan Talbot, artist on Alice in Sunderland, the forthcoming Grandville, and much else:
I’m really not happy with the term. ‘Graphic’ has connotations of explicit sex or violence and ‘novel’ implies that it’s a bastardized form of another medium, which it isn’t. Many GNs aren’t what could be considered novel-length and many aren’t even fiction. Autobiography and reportage are now covered by the ludicrous marketing term ‘non-fiction graphic novels’! Having said that, I do use the term to describe what I produce because everybody knows what you mean and there’s no other option that’s any less vague. ‘Comics’ or ‘sequential art’ is the medium not the form. Alan Moore calls his GNs ‘big comics’. I suspect that this is partly to get up the noses of people who utilise the term graphic novel and partly to diffuse any accusations of pretentiousness. It’s still just as inaccurate though and could just as well describe an oversized comic page or a sequential mural. I don’t like ‘comics’ come to that as it’s a total misnomer. Still, as I said, one uses phrases that people understand. It saves time.

Rick Veitch, writer and artist on Swamp Thing, and lots of other fine work:
I know a lot of folks see it as imperfect, but when I first heard it from Will Eisner in 1976, ‘graphic novel’ did a nice job of defining how far comics might yet reach. These days, though still imperfect, ‘graphic novel’ has found its way into the general cultural lexicon as how far comics have come.

Not a bad marketing trick.

Paul Cornell, novelist, comics writer, and Doctor Who scriptwriter:
I think it should refer only to a single body of work, that’s meant to be seen as one story, contained within one volume. That is, everything from Maus to Scott Pilgrim. I don’t think it should apply to collections of comics. It irks me that mainstream folk use it when they mean ‘comic’, and I’m proud to keep calling the medium ‘comics’.

Dave McKean, painter, musician, and Sandman cover artist:
It’s a marketing term. At one point it referred to comics with the scope and ambition of a regular novel, but the glut of Spider-Super-Bat-X ‘graphic novels’ skuppered that idea. I guess it’s been adopted by the media as a way of talking about contemporary comics as opposed to The Beano or pre-80s superhero comics, but I don’t think the term means much beyond that.

John Higgins, comics artist, and the ‘Third Man’ on Watchmen:
It is a slightly clunky appellation but I love the name ‘Graphic Novel’ it says to me comics have come of age. A book you can put on your shelf, not some floppy ‘kid’ of a 32-page comic that can’t stand up by itself, but a ‘manly’ Graphic Novel. It has hairs on its chest and it can.

Leigh Walton, comics editor, and Top Shelf’s marketing coordinator:
I find it intensely frustrating, in the sense that I can’t fully support it and I can’t fully dismiss it. Great minds have worked for ages to invent a better term, and they’ve failed. Its shortcomings are obvious — it’s based on a term, ‘novel,’ which has specific requirements of length and content, and it can never replace ‘comics’ as a general term for the medium (how clumsy does a ‘graphic novel festival’ sound?). Yet ‘comic book’ was reserved ages ago for a format that isn’t really very booklike at all.

On the other hand, words mean whatever everyone says they mean, regardless of what they used to mean. Our definition of ‘novel’ is itself quite recent. And the fact is that ‘graphic novel’ is the best term to communicate what sort of book From Hell is — or even what sort of book Blankets is (despite its autobiographical nature). I wince to think of it applied to a book like Jamilti and Other Stories; at the very least I prefer my ‘graphic novel’ to be one big story. But in the end it’s about using whatever methods best get your message across. I know Top Shelf’s position is that the book is more important than what it’s called, and I feel the same way.

Chris Staros Top Shelf publisher, and Elvis fan:
I’m fine with it now, as it’s so accepted I don’t have to explain it anymore. But, in truth, as a descriptive term it’s not a great one (though neither is ‘comic book’). But we, as an industry, have imbued both terms with power, and now they are words rich with meaning.

If I was in a garage band and said ‘Dudes, I’ve got the name for the band, it’s The Beetles, but with an ‘A’ like the Beat – so, The Beatles’, I would have been kicked out of the band. But they imbued that name with such power it has transcended everything (well, except Elvis).

So, as long as we put out great books, ‘Graphic Novel’ works, because we give the term its power.

Jess Nevins, scholar, researcher, and world-class annotator:
I don’t mind it, really–it has a certain utility, both as a marketing & classification tool and as a term for comics-heads to use and argue over (and we all know how important arguing is to comics-heads). I think the emotions stirred up by its use–and even its existence–is rather silly.

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(Cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan (BEK), borrowed from here, on the increasingly mainstream acceptance of the Graphic Novel and the ways it’s becoming very trendy in certain literary circles.)

Mark Seifert, creative director at Avatar Comics, and helping hand on Bleeding Cool:
I think the debate on whether ‘graphic novel’ is an accurate or useful term is about to be temporarily superseded by the coming debate over what to call comics and books in general in the downloadable era. The term ebooks seems to be gaining ground early on, and in our own industry you’re starting to see the term digital comics being used.

But then you’ve got something like our own FreakAngels, which is pretty obviously a webcomic and equally obviously what most people would call a graphic novel. That to me underlines the problem with the term — it’s being used to describe both the art form and the format, and is a bit awkward at both. And all that doesn’t even touch on the elephant in the room that ‘graphic novel’ is also largely a way to avoid saying ‘comic book’.

All that said, the term doesn’t bother me. It’s a term of convenience first and of marketing second, and it’s the best we have at the moment. Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that around the office and among fellow professionals, we all just use the term ‘books’ without a second thought when we talk about what we do.

Garen Ewing, writer and artist on Rainbow Orchid, and all-round good guy :
I’m not as vehemently against it I was a few years ago, or even a year ago. Until very recently, I associated the term graphic novel with all the rubbish that was put out under that tag when companies realised that comics in book form could be an easy revenue stream in the wake of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. It had an air of pretension about it that 95% of the product could not live up to.

In the last year or so I’ve come across many people who are having their first contact with comics, and for them ‘graphic novel’ is a natural label, and one that many lay-people just accept. I would not personally promote my work as a graphic novel, because the old connotations are still strong with me, but I have found it a convenient badge to place on my work when describing it to non-comics people, because it’s a phrase they have an understanding of – which is quite something really. There are works I would call graphic novels, and mean it in a positive way – From Hell and Berlin to name just a couple from my own bookshelf. So, I still harbour a slight prejudice against the term, but it is rapidly thawing.

John Reppion, one half of MooreReppion, and an eminent Fortean:
Personally I don’t have any problem with the term even though it’s just generally used to describe trades now as well as actual, non-serialised, stories. Comics is not really a great term either since the majority of stories aren’t (intentionally) funny so graphic novel is certainly no worse than that.

Gary Spencer Millidge, writer of Comic Book Design, and creator of the truly splendid, but sadly unfinished Strangehaven:
I don’t particularly like the term ‘Graphic Novel,’ but it is a universally understood term, at least with librarians and booksellers, which is a hugely valuable asset in the movement to gain wider acceptance for the format.

I know some will argue that ‘graphic’ implies sexual imagery and that ‘novel’ doesn’t include works of non-fiction and perhaps is inaccurate as far as the length of some of the works are concerned. But I think the term is in such wide usage now, that when someone says ‘Graphic Novel,’ it’s pretty clear what they’re talking about.

Remember that the term ‘comics’ itself is fraught with possible misinterpretation and confusion with ‘comedians’. Alan Moore’s assertion that Graphics Novels are just ‘Big Comics’ is true, but to me it just conjures up an image of Frank Carson.
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Yes, they are just big comics, but they are typically a squarebound, self-contained format, sold in bookshops. That’s a worthwhile distinction from a flimsy, periodical comic book sold on newsstands or in comic shops I think.

Over the years, I’ve heard many other attempts at finding a label for the format, almost all of which I’ve forgotten (which proves a point), except for Donna Barr’s ‘Drawn Books’ which I think is an awfully clunky and unattractive description of such a potentially beautiful art form. The comics’ industry’s usage of the description ‘trade paperback’ I also find particularly unhelpful. Do the comic reading public have any idea what that means?

As imperfect as it is, I think we’re stuck with the term Graphic Novel, so perhaps it’s time we all started embracing it.

Leah Moore, the other half of MooreReppion, and living proof that there is a comic-creating gene:
Leah: I think for the most part it is used incorrectly to just mean a collected edition of a series or part of a series. It’s rare that these are intended to actually read like a novel, and often the artwork is patchy, or the story kind of wavers about, much more like a series than a novel.

I think where people have written a complete graphic novel, but broken it into issues, that’s okay, and obviously when the book is brought out all in one go simply as the complete book, then it’s accurate.

The main reason people like to call them graphic novels is because it makes them seem more grown up and serious and artistically valid than just ‘comics’. People will say they collect graphic novels, or that they are into graphic novels, and not feel nearly so nerdy and naff as just saying they like comics.

(Thanks again to Pádraig Ó Méalóid for letting us repost – now – what do YOU think?)

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

3 Responses to What’s Your Opinion Of The Term “Graphic Novel”?

  1. Alan Halsted says:

    Great article, I was just asking myself this very question the other day and here are a bunch of my heroes commenting on it…

    I like to keep it simple, the graphic novel is not a comic book. I see they now cover a more high brow appeal, are relationship focused, and have very little mutant or super power action. Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, Guy Delisle ring my bells, but Watchmen and the Sandman series transcend their comic book background.

    Thanks!

    Alan

  2. Pingback: Collected Edition Blog browsing on Tuesday morning | Collected Comics Library

  3. Mozchops says:

    Piclit ?

    PickchaLit ?

    Picterature ?