BEKGraphicComics fans (and some comics scholars) are fond of drawing a distinction between comics and graphic novels. The problem, however, is that it seems difficult to draw this linein a principled way that both tracks a genuine, substantial distinction and that also does the theoretical/cultural/classificatory work for which the distinction is desired in the first place. The reason for this failure is pretty simple to locate: The comics-versus-graphic-novel distinction is usually motivated in one manner, but is actually applied in another. Definitions of graphic novels – definitions intended to separate these worthy works from (mere) comics – tend to emphasize formal (or, at least, non-generic, non-value-laden) features of the works in question, including:

  • Being book-length.
  • Telling a single, unified, complete story.
  • Published as a single work (i.e. not serialized).
  • Square-bound.
  • Addressing serious social or moral themes.

The problem, however, is that these criteria fail to ‘fit’ many of the works that those mobilizing the term ‘graphic novel’ want it to apply to. For example, Watchmen neither tells a self-contained, complete story (thanks to DC Comics’ ongoing Before Watchmen event) nor was originally published as a single work (it is, to put things technically, just one of many limited series published by DC at the time). Even Maus was originally serialized (in Raw and other places).

WoodcutThus, the distinction between comics and graphic novels is, in effect, aimed at two issues. On the one hand, those who propose definitions or accounts of the distinction tend to formulate the distinction in formal, non-evaluative terms. On the other hand, however, the concept is then often used to draw value distinctions – that is, to differentiate those works that are trivial, juvenile, and disposable from those works that are worthy of serious intellectual and academic scrutiny. In short, the tension stems from simultaneously understanding graphic novels as comics with certain formal features and understanding graphic novels as good comics. Given these problems, it is tempting to abandon the entire concept ‘graphic novel’ as just the unfortunate result of a misguided attempt to justify serious interest in comics, and instead call a comic a comic. But perhaps this is too quick. Abandoning either or both of the ‘formal’ or ‘value’ approaches to distinguishing between comics and graphic novels doesn’t mean we have to abandon the distinction altogether. Instead, perhaps there are other criteria for drawing the distinction. Aaron Meskin suggests just such a ‘third way’ at the end of his essay “Comics as Literature?” when he suggests that:

…the contemporary graphic novel (or perhaps a genre within that category) is a hybrid that involves the grafting together of the art form of comics with literary genres such as the novel and the autobiography or memoir. That is, there are real differences in subject matters addressed and themes dealt with between certain contemporary graphic novels (largely but not entirely post-Maus) and the comics that came before it, and this is best explained by understanding a new artistic hybrid to have arisen from the interbreeding of comics and certain literary genres. (British Journal of Aesthetics 49(3): p. 237)

WatchmenIn short, Meskin suggests that graphic novels ‘evolved’ via a combination of the previously existing comics art form and the novel, just as comics themselves evolved as a combination (or ‘hybrid’) from even earlier forms (including printmaking, caricature, and drawing). On this sort of view, the distinguishing marks that separate a graphic novel from a comic are neither formal nor valuative, but are instead historical – a graphic novel is a graphic novel if and only if it has the right sort of historical pedigree, tracking back through the traditions that developed out of the hybridization of novels and comics. Of course, this is but a slight sketch of a complex view that would require much more work. But is does suggest an intriguing alternative account of why many feel the push to distinguish between comics and graphic novels, and also suggests the sort of theoretical role that such a distinction could and could not be expected to play. So, are graphic novels hybrid? Is there such a thing as graphic novels at all?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

5 responses »

  1. Robert Boyd says:

    This post leaves out a large reason for calling certain comics graphic novels–commerce. A new label was needed by booksellers before they would commit to giving comics their own section in bookstores. (I worked for a book distributor that distributed comics during this period, and worked with many bookstores to help them build this category of books.) “Graphic novel,” as awkward as it was, worked quite well. It helped booksellers to identify these books and market them. Personally, I find the term pointless and overly vague. But let’s face it–“comics” is a terrible term, too.

  2. Roy,
    Last week in my Language and Comics class, we were discussing the medium and a student asked me about graphic novels. I mentioned some of the major points that you raise, and also the point that Robert makes in his earlier comment about commerce. But I felt dissatisfied because I realized I wasn’t happy with the answers that I gave. And I couldn’t tell if the students were convinced, either.

    The fresh perspective that you raise (and that Aaron Meskin raises in his article) really caught my attention. I don’t teach comics as literature, but the idea of a blended or hybrid form makes good sense to me. After all, many long works of fiction were serialized before they were collected into a single volume (the work of Charles Dickens). There is even an example of a long novel published in three volumes. While it is very frequent that “The Lord of the Rings” is called a trilogy in popular media, Tolkien himself referred to it as a novel, one that just so happened to be published in three volumes.

  3. roytcook says:

    I agree with Robert that the term “graphic novel” did play a central role in commerce and culture – e.g. in the organization of bookstores, in the gradual acceptance of comics as serious stuff etc. So the word has been useful as a culturally-respectable term allowing for the introduction of comics into classrooms and bookstores on a large scale. But it isn’t clear to me that this reflects any real distinction between comics and graphic novels – on the contrary, the easiest way to explain the use of the term is that bookstores/universities/etc. needed a ‘better-sounding’ term for “comics”, and the two words are thus completely synonymous. If this is right, then it does a good ways towards undermining any attempt by fans and theorists to claim that there is, in fact, a genuine distinction between graphic novels and ‘mere’ comics.

    Further, the fact that bookstores use the term “graphic novel” rather than comics seems to me to have led to unfortunate confusions within such shelving practices, since the unfortunate occurrence of “novel” in the term leads some stores, libraries, and their employees to place non-fiction comics in other sections (making them, as a result, hard to locate). So it hasn’t necessarily been a completely helpfull, harmless adoption of alternative terminology.

  4. Barbara Postema says:

    The two terms “comics” and “graphic novels,” however defined, are never completely synonymous. All graphic novels are comics, but not all comics are graphic novels. When you say comics could also be talking about comic books, comic strips, what have you.

  5. pandnotq says:

    Roy, I like your point about lumping all comic-type-things at stores into the Graphic Novel section, when, among other problems, some are non-fiction. That drives home the silliness of using Graphic Novel as a catch-all for anything that’s not a superhero monthly, or whatever. “Maus” isn’t exactly a novel either–more of a graphic biography/memoir. I don’t know enough about existing literary genres, but maybe it could be useful to use a parallel genre system that just puts some adjective like “graphic” in front of them. Graphic Memoir, Graphic Historical Fiction, Graphic Crime Novel, etc. And the monthlies would then be Graphic Serials or Graphic Short Stories or something. In any case, I like the discussion about this–I’m sure pretty much every comic reader out there gets annoyed by someone’s use of “graphic novel” or “trade” or something similar at least once a year.🙂

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