Graphic novel

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Graphic novel

Graphic novel: Often described as an extended form of comics, a visual narrative, published as a book, that tells a story through a combination of words and illustrations. Like a novel, a graphic novel tells a story via a plot, but the design, layout, and artwork are as integral to the story as the text. The term was coined in 1964 by American comics critic Richard Kyle, who used it to distinguish longer, more sophisticated works from short, simple comics.

The graphic novel’s origins lie primarily in Europe, the United States, and Japan. In Europe, Belgian artist Frans Masereel used woodcuts to compose wordless, novel-length narratives such as Mon livre d’heures (Passionate Journey) (1926). Subsequently, fellow Belgian Hergé (George Remi) developed the long-format and long-running comic book series Les Aventures de Tintin (1929—83), issues of which were bound into hardcover “albums,” as were the similarly popular and durable adventures of Astérix (1959— ), authored by the French writer-illustrator team René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. In the United States, drugstore comic books (e.g., the Classics Illustrated series [1941—76], which adapted canonical literature to graphic form), newspaper “funnies,” and superhero stories are often viewed as the principal precursors. In Japan, emaki picture scrolls and the caricatures of painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760—1849) are often cited as precedents.

Many scholars link the emergence of the graphic novel as a genre in the West to the publication of American writer Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978), a collection of graphically depicted short stories that prominently featured the term “graphic novel” on its cover. While other such texts had appeared earlier, such as Gil Kane’s Blackmark (1971) and Robert Howard and Richard Corben’s Bloodstar (1976), Eisner’s work, which looked like a novel and dealt with serious existential issues (including death and faith) among immigrant cultures, was particularly influential. Contemporaneous examples include Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest and Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy’s Sabre (both 1978). Subsequently, in the mid-1980s, graphic novels entered the mainstream in the United States with the success of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1986—87); Frank Miller’s revisionist four-part Batman miniseries The Dark Knight Returns (1986); and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), a two-volume memoir of the Holocaust that melds some fiction with fact. Other noted examples of the form include Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (1989—96); Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World (1997; adapted to film 2001) and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), both of which examine issues of disaffection and alienation in the lives of their young protagonists; and Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories (2003).

In Japan, the graphic novel emerged from demand for reprints of serialized comic strips, popularized by Osamu Tezuka, the father of Japanese manga (comics) and anime (animation). Manga encompass a wide range of subjects and target audiences: some are subject-specific, such as jidaimono (history), mecha (robots), and shōjo-ai or yuri (lesbian romances); others are demographically oriented, such as kodomo (for children), shōjo (for teenage girls), and shōnen (for teenage boys). Noted examples include Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) series (1951—81), which has been called the first science-fiction graphic novel; Kazuo Koike’s cult classic about samurai culture, Lone Wolf and Cub (1970—76); Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen (1973—74), a loosely autobiographical story of surviving the bombing of Hiroshima; Katsuhiro Otomo’s postapocalyptic, cyberpunk epic Akira (1982—90), which brought American attention to manga; Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982—94; adapted to film 1984) and anime film Spirited Away (2001); and Tsugumi Ohba’s Death Note series (2003—06).

Despite the association of novel and fiction, the term graphic novel is also used to refer to nonfiction works that fall into categories such as memoir, historical reportage, and journalism. Examples include Maus, which set the precedent for the nonfiction graphic novel; Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2000; adapted to film 2007), about growing up in Iran following the Islamic Revolution; Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2001), about the Arab-Israeli conflict; and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), the author’s memoir of coming out as a lesbian while coming to terms with the suicide of her closeted gay father.

Notably, many graphic novelists reject the term graphic novel. Some find it unduly broad, given its application to works ranging from the truly novel-like to nonfiction and short story collections; others believe it obscures the genre’s character as a form of comics. Moore derided graphic novel in an interview in 2000 as “a marketing term … . The term ’comic’ does just as well for me.” Spiegelman called it “an arguably misguided bid for respectability where graphics are respectable and novels are respectable so you get double respectability.” Even Eisner himself preferred the terms graphic literature and graphic story.

As the form has developed, so has a body of commentary, much of which is itself written in graphic novel form. Examples include Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1994) and Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling (1996), a guide to writing graphic fiction.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Blankets (2003), an autobiography by Craig Thompson; Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor (2015), a Faustian work in which Death gives the protagonist two hundred days to live in exchange for the power to sculpt anything he can imagine; Fumio Obata’s Just So Happens (2015), in which the death of a father in Japan interrupts the life of a successful young woman living in London; Fight Club 2 (2015—16), written by Chuck Palahniuk and illustrated by Cameron Stewart, a sequel to Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club (1996; adapted to film 1999). Recent literary examples include The Beats: A Graphic History (2009), which explores the lives and works of Beat Generation writers, and Michael Demson’s Masks of Anarchy (2013), which traces a connection between British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose early-nineteenth-century poem “The Mask of Anarchy” was written in response to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England, and Pauline Newman, an early-twentieth-century New York labor organizer.