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Literary Graphic Novels?

Stephen at This Space wrote a couple posts indicating his doubt at “graphic novels” [GNs, from henceforth] ability to be great literary works. In a previous post he made this statement about literary fiction:

I shall myself evade defining literary fiction right now. Let this entire blog stand for that endeavor. I will say this though: when I read a novel, it’s not IQ and general knowledge I seek or admire, it isn’t elegant prose, fiendish plots or psychological realism. It’s not even entertainment. I seek an engagement at the deepest level. It’s not always the most comfortable of experiences, and if I had any intelligence maybe I’d avoid it by getting lost in some genre fiction.

Now Stephen’s explanation can certainly be applied to comics/GNs, though not in every case. An “engagement at the deepest level” could be found in many different media/forms. Can we not find that in films or music or painting?

If you read some of the comments on this post (where I make some attempts at explanation/clarification and Stephen ignores my most pointed questions) you’ll see some of the issues come out:

I’m sure there are those [GNs] that intelligent and thoughtful. Not sure though if the form can go beyond that without having to dispense with what makes it popular. […] And by giving up what makes it popular, I meant giving up the pictures. Of course, Sebald’s novels use images to extraordinary effect. But what is the function of the graphics in a graphic novel that makes it necessary?

Part of the problem seems to be that Stephen is seeing “GN” as something adjacent to prose literature, something striving to be prose literature. This is a kind of reverse look from the Scott McCloud quote in my previous post. Scott is relying on the images, while it appears Stephen is relying on the words. (I am extrapolating from Stephen’s posts, so forgive any misrepresentations.)

Comics can’t be understood or discussed only in literary terms. Daniel Green often discusses his view of literature as a product of language and use of language. It is the language that makes literariness. (I hope I am not misrepresenting Dan, though I am certainly simplifying).

In a similar sense comics are about the use of visual language. There is a grammar, syntax, and vocabulary inherent to comics that has not been fully analyzed but is nevertheless present (McCloud’s Understanding Comics is the most well known start on such an analysis). The “literariness” of comics comes from the use of this visual language (there is the generic and cliched use of this language as well as the experimental or unique use). While words are part of this visual language (what are many words but truly abstract images) they are not the sole or necessarily overriding part.

The more I think about it, one of the biggest problems here is the term “GN”. Andrew Arnold gives a nice precise of the term in this column. He starts with the popular origin on Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and follows it to the current marketing term and its use in bookstores. The real problem here is that “GN” is a misguided term used to give comics a respectability relative to prose literature (as if pictures/images were somehow not respectable). The comics/prose analogy has rubbed off too much it seems.

What is needed is a term that uses the other analogy in the term, that of length. “Graphic Novel” is really a way to say “long self-contained narrative in comics form” in opposition to a comic strip or a comic pamphlet. Comics need their own formal terminology to separate themselves from a relativity to prose literature.

But, alas, I think GN is a term that has stuck and will remain the de facto term for “long self-contained comics narrative”. We’ll have to live with it, but that doesn’t mean that comics need to be the equivalent of prose novels. They have their own path to follow, and while both generally are used to create narratives, the means and methods are rather different (though perhaps not so much from a narratological standpoint? Something to think about).

As for recommendations of serious GNs, Arnold’s follow-up to the previously linked column is as good a place as any.