01 December 2007

Graphic Novels: An Overview and Debate

Thus far Lyrique Tragedy Reviews has been focused on reviews of books, events, and exhibits, but I’ve neglected some of the areas I am most passionate about: Comics and Graphic Novels. The one question I hear more than others regarding this topic is, “Aren’t Graphic Novels and comics the same thing?” Well, that’s a matter of perspective, whose definition you abide by, and which works you’re considering. I separate the two because they really aren’t the same thing at all, and though many Graphic Novels have been compilations of an entire serial series, some were never intended to be anything but Graphic Novels in that form. Others were released serially, but are, under most definitions, Graphic Novels. Graphic Novels released this way are reminiscent of those major works of antiquity that were released in magazines or newspapers a chapter at a time (I’m thinking of Anna Karenina specifically here).

For example, though Neil Gaiman’s Sandman collection was originally released in individual issues, they are most widely available today in the trade paperback format. Though the Sandman series was issued serially, the prevailing notions of what constitutes a Graphic Novel require this mature, intelligent series to be labeled as such. The division of those issues into trade paperbacks divided them into what could be considered complete novels in a larger series. Gaiman’s use of literary, historical, mythical, and pop cultural allusions elevates this series to something more than a traditional comic (but believe me, I have no qualms about the delicious story arcs that various “traditional” comics offer!) The major difference between a Traditional Comic series and a Graphic Novel (single or in series form) is that there is a definitive end to the over arching storyline. Superman, Spiderman, The Punisher, Iron Man, Green Lantern, X-Men (and their many incarnations, including the more recent Astonishing X-Men co-written by another favorite of mine—Joss Whedon) may have definitive story arcs, but they are designed to be continued beyond any particular arc. Gaiman, for example, set out in 1988 to do a 75 issue run from start to finish. That’s it. No more. No mas.

Most accepted definitions separate Graphic Novels from Traditional Comics by their content, plot, and length. Graphic Novels are typically viewed for a more mature audience (which, to me, seems to imply “educated,” though certainly there are those Graphic Novels who take “graphic” literally and slather the pages in blood, sex, violence, nudity, and foul language). The notion that Graphic Novels differ from Traditional Comics because they feature a plot that includes a beginning, middle, and end is likewise argumentative. Comics feature story arcs that constitute what can be condensed into novel form—I’m thinking primarily of the original “Phoenix Saga” (X-Men, 19776-77) and the “Dark Phoenix Saga” (X-Men, 1980), and that have been collected in “Graphic Novel” format. The new Dark Phoenix- Endsong and Dark Phoenix- Warsong were released in 2005 and 2006 respectively, but appeared in the Traditional Comic format, in serial issues. Some would argue that because of the decisive story line these later released story arcs could constitute a Graphic Novel—a fact that remains to be seen.

In some cases the term “literary” is invoked to describe the more complex, serious thought provoking messages, allusions, and story lines supposedly present in Graphic Novels. Length becomes a distinct issue as well. Superheroes and Comic book characters that are intended to live into perpetuity in one manifestation or another in series after series would be hard pressed to find themselves in a pure Graphic Novel. In 1992, Superman’s death rocked the world, and in a mere seven issues he was brought back to life. Most recently, Captain America died in March of 2007, and in October it was announced that Cap will return in January of 2008 (armed with a handgun this time). Comics count on the dedication of fans to await triumphant returns. It seems no serial comic can keep their main characters dead for long, so they bring them back in a bigger and better way. In 1988 Jason Todd* the Boy Wonder, was killed off. But they didn’t bring Robin back in his initial form. Instead, the vacuum was filled by Tim Drake’s training to become the third young man to wear the Robin costume next to Batman. For these reasons, most mainstream Traditional Comic heroes don’t appear in Graphic Novels for this very reason. The ambiguous timelines and RetCon mentality (There’s still argument going on about what really happened when Spiderman died and what happened when) allow writers to play with history and plotlines in ways that would make a linear reader insane. And yet, Frank Miller accomplished placing a well known Traditional Comic hero in the Graphic Novel form to outstanding acclaim with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

But the definition of “Graphic Novel” is spurious at best. It is ever changing, ever evolving, and ever under criticism. Some believe that the term is a marketing ploy to sell more comics, while others see the term as a way to differentiate certain works from what are perceived to be “childish” traditional comics. While I find some validity in both of those notions, the fact that comic books have been addressing political, global, and social issues from their inception cannot be ignored. Captain America and Superman both fought the Nazi’s, for example, and Captain America’s recent death was due to a sniper bullet while fighting the War on Terror. Neither can marketing collections of serial comics into a trade paperback be dismissed. If they cover a single story arc, appear as a trade paper back, and have a definite plot, it can be argued that it would fall under the category of Graphic Novel.

When push comes to shove in defining a work as a Graphic Novel, intent seems to be the key factor in whether or not something can be defined as such. I would tend to define serial comics that have been transformed into a trade paperback featuring Traditional Comic superheroes as “collections” or, perhaps, “anthologies” rather than Graphic Novels mainly because of their tendency to have those characters appear in other works continually. But it depends on if you’re looking at the definition from the perspective of a reader, a writer, or a publicist. Because of the success of Graphic Novels in the marketplace, every comic company has at one time or another tried to take their beloved heroes and fit them into that category for the sake of profit. Others may see it differently, as I do. Writers and fans seem to share at least a cursory notion of what constitutes a Graphic Novel, but ultimately, until a hard and fast definition is accepted into the industry, individuals will have to decide for themselves.

~Dawn Papuga
*Thank you to j.l. bell for the correction catches in this article, and for pointing out that it was Jason Todd, not Dick Grayson, who died in the '88 comic. Grayson lives on in his own right as Nightwing.


J. L. Bell said...

Alan Moore didn't write The Dark Knight Returns; Frank Miller did.

DC didn't kill Dick Grayson in 1988. It killed (after fan voting) Grayson's successor as Robin, Jason Todd. Grayson lives on as Nightwing.

Lately "graphic novel" has become the superhero-publishers' term for any collection of comics, whether originally conceived as a standalone work or self-contained story arc within the periodicals, or not.

D.M. Papuga said...

J. L. Bell,

Thank you for catching that typo! I had another post where I discussed quite a few of Alan Moore's work and it came right before that. Cut and paste can be my enemy sometimes.

As for the Boy Wonder issue, I have no real excuse for that error. Most of the dialogue I have encountered on the issue referenced Grayson. I am aware of his presence as Nightwing, but I also think that goes to show how fluid the world of comics can be. I'll credit you with the corrections on the revision tonight.

And the use of the term "graphic novel" as anything longer than a single issue speaks to my comments on the marketing and publishing teams using the term for their own agendas.

Thanks for the comment!


J. L. Bell said...

I agree that "graphic novel" is more of a marketing term than an accurate label, as least as it's applied now.

My main grumpiness about the term is that "novel" has a specific literary meaning and heritage. I have no problem with calling a complex, extended story being told in comics form or with other sorts of illustrations a "graphic novel." But I don't think slapping five or six comics and giving the resulting volume an ISBN should create a "graphic novel." However, I'm comfortable with calling a publication that's neither comic nor a book a "comic book," so I may yet come around.

Comics creator Eric Shanower shared some observations on how the term's being used in the industry in the comments section of this entry on my Oz and Ends blog.

D.M. Papuga said...


Thank you for the link to your site! I always enjoy finding new literary blogs to read and reference when given the chance.

It also seems that you and I agree on at least one thing. I don't like to apply the term "graphic" novel to collections of issues, either. I do think it's important for the industry to develop a specific definition eventually, but as with most things, it comes over time and with debate until a generally agreed upon definition suits most people.

Then again, does it really matter? To whom does it matter? As an academic it bothers me that I have a classification here that I couldn't begin to start applying because of the lack of agreement by pretty much everyone. On the other hand, many literary theories have the same problem. I suppose I just like things to have definition and boundaries, but I enjoy working to test those boundaries, too.

Thanks again, and I'll be sure to keep an eye on your blog!


sirpsychosexy said...

Fantastic article. I've had to suppress my comic reading for years and finally returned in the form of these graphics novels. Last I looked at someone like Marvel, they seems to be aiming more at marketing these collections than before. It appears as if almost every comic gets repackaged into a trade once a storyline finishes, which helps accessibility, I think, for some readers. I've also gone back and picked up some of the acclaimed books, like Dark Night Returns, some Sin City, or the original Wolverine mini-series Trade.

D.M. Papuga said...


Thank you! You raised and interesting point here about accessibility. The very first trade paperback I ever purchased was the Phoenix Saga some years ago, which included the entire run of issues in that story arc. That's my favorite arc, and trying to find individual issues would likely prove expensive and difficult, so the TPB allowed me to own the entire series without breaking my bank.

You mentioned Marvel specifically, and I'm currently trying to figure out how I would classify the Civil War series. It's a seven issue limited series, bringing together The Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Illuminati, Thunderbolts, and New Warriors, but how the events translate into their own respective comics in the future might determine for me whether or not they will be considered Graphic Novels in my estimation. They already appear in the Graphic Novel section of bookstores.

Have you checked out The Preacher series?

Thanks for some ideas for my next post!


Anonymous said...

Whether they're called collections, trade paperbacks, or graphic novels, most of the time the "name" usually refers to the format of the book more than its content. "Graphic novel" is a marketing term, but it can also be description of the author/artist's intent. Trying to pin it down at this stage of the game is going to be a case-by-case task, though.

If calling a comics story a Graphic Novel persuades someone that the material is "mature" enough to warrant reading, that's all that's going to matter to most writers, artists, and publishers. Finding readers is the goal these days, and we're happy to take them where we find them.

I make the distinction for myself when I read -- a collection of random issues is like a collection of short stories; a longer story, complete in itself, is a "novel"; a collection of serialized issues which maintain a series forward momentum without presenting a clear beginning-middle-end story get labeled a "collection" -- but I'm not worried whether others recognize the same (or make their own) categories. As long as they're reading!