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Graphic Novels v. Novels

From Chris Tamarri’s review of Beg the Question by Bob Fingerman at his blog, Crisis/Boring Change:

So many of what we call graphic novels aren’t novels, not really. You can usually discount those books that are collections of previously printed materials. Sure, serialization doesn’t necessarily render the ultimate collection a bastardization of form, yes, right, Dickens’s novels were originally serialized, of course. Unlike most of those comics collected in squarebound, those were, if I recall, written with an eye towards the ultimate product. The collection of, say, Sandman was established as a marketing co-option of creative impulse, a way to earn more money off the same initial product. Even those comics that do seem to have an eye towards the final product in their conception–whether offered first as a single unit, like Alex Robinson’s work, or as a serial, like Black Hole–often lack certain sensibilities intrinsic to the novel. That’s not a value judgment; comics draw on (no pun intended) a different cultural well and use particular formal approaches. Novels tend to be snapshots from which context is extrapolated. They have demonstrable plots where A leads to B leads to C, and everything that led to A and from C, and which occurred between A and B, and B and C, all of that is produced incidentally, by virtue of the fact that prose description doesn’t have to be as linear as sequential art, where any given panel has to follow the one before, otherwise it’s unclear what’s happening, let alone why it’s happening.

I read this and I immediately felt the need to respond to a number of the opinions expressed here. I’ll admit that Chris’ description of a novel is a bit confusing (“snapshot from which context is extrapolated”?), so perhaps I am misunderstanding, but the description, even at its most basic level of “demonstrable plots where A leads to B leads to C” is mired in a very conventional concept of “novel.” Even as far back as Tristram Shandy, we get a novel that goes against this idea (not to mention the nouveau roman and other more modern styles). How what is between those plot points is “produced incidentally” I’m not grasping. It’s a chance occurrence how those plot points are tied together?

The idea that sequential art is any more tied to linearity than prose (where one could easily say that any sentence must follow the one before it) is fairly absurd, else every comic would be an unbreaking sequence of moment-by-moment panel transitions, so that the reader would never have to think about how one panel follows another. Sure, panels follow each other spatially, but in the time of the story, they are not restricted to a linear sequence. In fact the visual clues of comics allow for less linearity, more easily. Take, for example, Chris Ware’s diagrammatic comics pages. This is much harder (and rarer) to do in text (traditional text that is, hypertext is another story).

Looking up “novel” in a dictionary (one for literary terms), I am hard pressed to find any definition that is more sensical than “a novel is what is called a novel”. Even a simple definition like “an extended fictional prose narrative” (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms) is followed by numerous exceptions and qualifiers: except when they are in verse, non-fictional, short, or lacking any conventional narrative structures (see Ourednik’s Europeana (mostly non-fictional), Markson’s latter works such as This is Not a Novel (lacking conventional narrative and mostly non-fictional) or… well I can’t think of any “novels in verse” off the top of my head). Basically, a novel is bigger than a short story.

Transferring this to comics and graphic novels, a graphic novel is bigger than… a smaller comic, a short story comic? I do agree with Chris on the idea of a planned ending as a criterion–perhaps the main criteria besides length–(a defined ending would then throw out comic strips and conventional serial pamphlet series as potential graphic novels), but with that criteria we can consider Sandman as a graphic novel. Neil Gaiman has long said that he had an extended story to tell which started in issue one and would eventually end when he finished the story (which he then did).

I’ve heard it said that graphic novel should indicate a seriousness of intent, some kind of literary qualifier, but, if one again compares to the novel, we quickly see that the proliferation of clichéd romance/mystery/sci-fi novels show no clear novelistic facet of literary or serious intent.

The novel is a forgiving and expansive label, and I think we can consider graphic novel as a similarly open label. Though it does get a lot of use where it should probably not be applied: collections of issues from a serial (most of Marvel/DC “graphic novels”) or collections of short stories (Eisner’s A Contract with God being the classic example), but that is then a marketing term rather than a formal term (after all Eisner called A Contract With God a graphic novel as a way to market it to potential publishers).