Comics 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).
- 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).
Thus, 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)
In 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?