The graphic novel is a book-length narrative utilizing sequential images and text. Beyond that simple definition, however, few commonalities can be presumed about the form. Most graphic novels make use of the fundamental grammar of sequential comics, including dialogue balloons, panels separated by blank space, and connections between the panels (temporal, spatial, emotional, or symbolic) that must be forged by the reader. The comics theorist Scott McCloud has influentially described the work required of the reader in essentially filling in the space between the panels as “closure.” And just as the relationship between the panels is variable and by no means always transparent, so too is the relationship between text and image. Unlike in the illustrated novel, where the image usually serves the text, in the graphic novel image and text are always in an uneasy collaboration, sometimes even working at cross-purposes in terms of the narrative information they convey. If there is one thing that the increasingly diverse range of graphic novels share it is their engagement with these gaps and tensions inherent in the form—gaps which other narrative forms (classical Hollywood cinema, for example) have often worked to smooth over.
The term “graphic novel” raises some fundamental challenges when considered in relation to the traditional novel form. First, it is not a term that many of its practitioners find entirely satisfactory. Creators often feel that it inaccurately privileges the literary or the textual elements of the form. And many remain uncomfortable with its increasingly widespread use as a marketing term, often used to lump together a range of texts of very different qualities and ambitions, including works of graphic autobiography and nonfiction. Yet, despite the limitations of the term (in many ways, akin to the older term “comic book” describing a form that is most often neither “comic” nor a “book”), creators and publishers have acknowledged its value as a way of describing the narrative ambitions of many contemporary comics, a form that even today many presume to be puerile or nonliterary. It cannot be denied that the success of the term as a marketing device has helped make this work increasingly visible to new audiences (and of course the term “novel” was itself essentially a marketing term (see HISTORY).
The earliest use of the term “graphic novel” is credited to Richard Kyle, an early champion of the form and an importer of comics from Europe, where, especially in France and Belgium, there was already an established tradition of comics for adult readers. Kyle wanted to see creators in the U.S. push the medium in similar directions to what he saw in French and Japanese comics, and his coining in 1964 of the terms “graphic stories” and “graphic novel” was less an attempt to describe the state of comics at that moment than it was a call to arms to move the form beyond the superheroes, monsters, and teenage romance that dominated comics in the U.S. Kyle was by no means alone, of course, as many working in and around comics at this time were increasingly frustrated with the limitations of comic books, especially in the wake of the Comics Code of 1954, a system of self-censorship designed (like the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934 in Hollywood) to forestall government intervention in the industry. The Code placed strict limits on comics in terms of content, further limiting potential audiences for comics to the youngest readers, and it greatly diminished opportunities for independent publishers and creators to succeed in the industry. The development of the term “graphic novel” emerged from similar energies to those which sparked the beginnings of the underground comix movement in New York and San Francisco at the same time.
If the term “graphic novel” originated in the 1960s in large measure as a way of marking a distinction with the increasingly regulated and juvenile comic book form, it was equally designed to distinguish the form from the illustrated novel. As Kyle later wrote, “Comics are not ... ’illustrated stories.’... Graphics do not ’illustrate’ the story; they are the story” (qtd. in Harvey, 2005, 20). In terms of fundamental definitions of the form, this distinction is an important one. There are many examples of wordless or “silent” graphic novels, books that tell their stories entirely through images. On the other hand, there can be no such thing as a graphic novel without images. In an illustrated novel, the images supplement or support the text; in a graphic novel visual language carries at least an equal share in the meaning-making of a text, and usually more. As with the early comic strip and comic book forms, the graphic novel depends on what comics historian Robert C. Harvey has termed the “vital blend” of word and image, which together communicate in a way that neither could alone (2001).
The relatively late emergence of the graphic novel in the U.S. (almost a century after the widespread adoption of sequential comics in illustrated magazines and, later, newspaper supplements) stands in contrast to the history of comics in other countries. Book-length comics (manga) had been published in Japan since the early 1950s, and in France and Belgium albums—longer comics published in heavier stock covers and on quality paper—had been marketed since the late 1940s. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were several experiments with graphic novels, most notably the woodcut novels of the Flemish artist Frans Masereel. This in large measure explains why, unlike the more inclusive term “novel,” which was used to categorize narrative fictions across national borders and retroactively across centuries—Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) as a “novel,” for example—“graphic novel” remains primarily used to describe the contemporary history of the book-length comic in the U.S.
The graphic novel first garnered attention in 1978, when Will Eisner, one of the most influential pioneers in the birth of the comic book industry in the 1930s and 1940s, identified his collection of interconnected stories, Contract with God, as a graphic novel. Two years later, Art Spiegelman began serializing the story of his father's experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, using mice to represent the Jews and cats as stand-ins for the Nazis. In 1986 Spiegelman published the book-length volume of Maus; the publication of the second volume in 1991 resulted in a Pulitzer Prize and began a slow but steady movement toward critical and cultural acceptance of the form that continues to this day.
Yet the very fact that it was Maus that serves as the foundation for the rise of the contemporary graphic novel serves to highlight another difficulty raised by the term. After all, Maus is not a work of fiction, and Spiegelman protested the New York Times's classification of it as “fiction” on their bestseller list (New York Times Book Review, 29 Dec. 1991, 4). Many of the most influential graphic novels of the past generation—e.g., Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2000—2003) and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006)—are autobiographies (see LIFE WRITING). “Graphic novel” has from the start been used to describe works that are explicitly not narrative fiction. For many of those working in the form, however, the ambiguities raised by the term “graphic novel” serve to highlight in productive ways the fictional aspects of all nonfiction and autobiography, and the nonfictional and autobiographical elements of all fiction. Increasingly, these overlaps and ambiguities have become central to the definition of the form itself (see GENRE).
With all the tensions described above, graphic novelists are for the most part eager to have it both ways at once. The same is true in terms of the cultural value of the form, as many creators openly embrace a form that can be both “art” and “junk” (Benfer). It is in part for this reason, even as the graphic novel receives more attention and critical respect, that many creators continue to work in the comic book form as well, often serializing their stories over several years before collecting the various comic books into a graphic novel (see SERIALIZATION). The comic book form not only maintains the graphic novel's genealogical connections to the forms of popular culture from which it continues to draw energy (serial traditions dating back to the story papers and dime novels of the nineteenth century), but it also allows creators to interact with their most devoted readers in a way that book publication does not. For example, one of the more ambitious ongoing graphic novels, Jason Lutes's Berlin: City of Stones (1996—), is only a little more than half completed after more than a dozen years; another arguably more ambitious project, Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, (1998—) is around one-third complete after more than a decade. Many creators explicitly utilize the feedback from readers of the serialized comic books—letters, online discussion—to help shape the direction of their ongoing narratives. For their part, publishers remain committed to the comic book as a way of building a readership for the eventual graphic novel. Even as there are signs that the rise of the graphic novel has hurt sales of serial comic books, for now the majority of graphic novels are still first published in serial comic book form.
One of the most influential and ambitious graphic novels of the twenty-first century is Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). Ware serialized Jimmy Corrigan throughout the 1990s, not once, but twice: first, in the free weekly papers to which Ware contributed in his home city of Chicago and then in his serialized Acme Novelty Library. At each stage, Ware was able to incorporate feedback and his own changing vision of the byzantine narrative, making revisions to the text for each new format.
Jimmy Corrigan moves back and forth across several generations of the tangled genealogy of the Corrigan family, focusing primarily on a contemporary protagonist and his grandfather, whose story takes place in and around the Columbian exposition of 1893. But the graphic novel also involves extended dream sequences and fantasies, as well as cut-out paper toys and trading cards. Ware offers few reliable guides to his reader in working through this long and challenging work, asking his readers to struggle along with his protagonists in attempting to make meaning out of the seemingly random messages, images, and ephemera of modern life and family history. If Spiegelman's Maus showed that the graphic novel could engage with the most traumatic stories of modern history, Ware's Jimmy Corrigan has demonstrated that the graphic novel could be as challenging and as ambitious as an experimental novel or avant-garde art form (see SURREALISM), inspiring younger creators (Paul Hornschmeier or Kevin Huizenga, for example) who previously might never have considered the graphic novel as an outlet for their vision.
Graphic novels are increasingly visible in mainstream book stores, in college classrooms, and on the “year's best” lists (e.g., Time magazine recognized Fun Home as its best book of 2006). And this attention is well merited in terms of the range and quality of the work being produced in the form. Even the New York Times, which has historically been suspicious of comics even as its rivals embraced them at the start of the last century, has opened up its Magazine to serialized work by some of the most prominent graphic novelists of the day and its online Book Review to a regular column covering developments in the field.
The increasing range, quality, and prominence of the graphic novel must be attributed to several sources. First, this current “renaissance” is the product of a generation inspired by the liberating experiments of underground comix in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the remarkable achievement of Art Spiegelman (himself a veteran of that movement). Second, technological developments—most especially digitization and desktop publishing—have made the publication of black-and-white images increasingly affordable, allowing smaller presses to publish previously prohibitively expensive books and even encouraging an increasing number of graphic novelists to self-publish—e.g., Jeff Smith (1991—2004, Bone) and Terry Moore (1993—2007, Strangers in Paradise).
Finally, the graphic novel's rise has coincided with the emergence of the personal computer and our increasing exposure to new image/text hybrid forms on the internet. Although the graphic novel remains for the most part an insistently handmade artifact, and thus very much apart from the “digital revolution,” its growing influence is deeply connected to the proliferation of image/text hybrid forms on the internet, television (the CNN “crawl,” music videos, etc.), and video games. As we increasingly tell our stories in combinations of text and image, the graphic novel—rooted in a form that has been telling stories using sequences of text and image for more than a century—will likely have an increasingly central role to play in the decades to come.
SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Definitions of the Novel, Photography, Publishing.
1. Benfer, A. (2001), “Los Bros Hernandez Duet, with Kissing,” Salon, http://archive.salon.com/mwt/feature/2001/02/20/kiss_and_tell/.
2. Chute, H. (2008), “ Comics as Literature?,” PMLA 123:452—65.
3. Gravett, P. (2005), Graphic Novels.
4. Harvey, R. (1996), Art of the Comic Book.
5. Harvey, R. (2001), “Comedy at the Juncture of Word and Image,” in Language of Comics, ed. R. Varnum and C.T. Gibbons.
6. Harvey, R. (2005), “Describing and Discarding ’Comics’ as an Impotent Act of Philosophical Rigor,” in Comics as Philosophy, ed. J. McLaughlin.
7. Hatfield, C. (2005), Alternative Comics.
8. McCloud, S. (1993), Understanding Comics.
9. Pilcher, T. (2005), Essential Guide to World Comics.
10. Sabin, R. (1993), Adult Comics.
11. Versaci, R. (2007), This Book Contains Graphic Language.