Register Friday | March 31 | 2023

Let's Not Call Them Graphic Novels

Fact behind the new literary fiction

I teach a course on dreams at Bennington College. Last semester, after three months of asking my students to record their dreams, to write about dreams, and to write about what other writers have said about dreams, I asked them instead to portray a dream in a comic strip. I was amazed. Even kids who couldn’t draw to save their lives revealed instincts for pacing, storyboarding, and composition that would’ve made them better-than-average writers had their skills been verbal and not visual. A couple of my students had studied cartooning, but most had not—and all had taken classes that emphasized writing. Yet only a few could write papers that were a pleasure to read, while nearly all produced cartoons that provoked more pleasure than pain.

Maybe my standards are higher for prose, but that isn’t the whole explanation. At first I saw my students’ cartoons as one more piece of evidence that ours is now an image-oriented culture. Maybe so, but the simpler answer is that we read comics for pleasure, with as much awareness of our moment-by-moment enjoyment and its specific causes as we have while eating. And not many undergraduates read prose that way, least of all critical prose. They’ve never looked for pleasure in critical essays, can’t spot it when it’s there for the taking, and so of course don’t know how to produce it with their own prose. They know how to create enjoyable comic strips because they know what it feels like to enjoy one.

I start with enjoyment both because that’s where the comic book started and because the craving for legitimacy betrayed by boosters of the graphic novel—betrayed, indeed, by the term “graphic novel”—seems to portend an unfortunate devaluation of pleasure. Till recently, no one read comics except for fun, and while that meant that many were pitched to the lowest common denominator, yielding abominations (like most of the strips in any daily paper) that most readers of Maisonneuve would agree with me in finding too dumb to enjoy, it also meant that—unlike so many “serious” books—comic books were never too self-important, humorless, or preachy to enjoy. It’s fair to insist that comics don’t have to be stupid, but some proponents of the genre seem to be boasting that comics don’t have to be fun. And while that’s true, it hardly seems a cause for celebration. It would be a pity if the graphic novel sold its birthright for a mess of plaudits.

On the face of it, “graphic novel” is as pretentious [1] a term as “rock opera.” In certain formats, graphic novels are about the size and shape of a short trade-paperback novel, but that is about all the two forms have in common. To be sure, the term created a needed marketing niche; without it, Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman would still be stuck in the humor section with the Dilbert compilations. And no one can blame serious cartoonists and their fans for wanting to shed the men-in-tights stigma that attaches to “comic book.” But few so-called graphic novels really read or feel or function like novels.

Of course, “novel” itself has always been hard to define, and the range of things we call by that word is so wide that we should hesitate to say that anything isn’t “really” a novel. But the only definition that comes close to including all the books we do call novels, and excluding most of those we don’t, is “a long work of prose fiction,” and (granting that there is no consensus as to the exact length at which a long story becomes a short novel) I don’t know of any so-called graphic novel that contains as many words as the shortest of short novels. It may be that some pictures are worth a thousand words, [2] and certainly the ways in which the pictures in cartoons can illustrate or supplement or counterpoint the text are many; one of the most interesting things about comics in general is the unstable relationship between text and image. But the images in comics seldom extend their texts in ways that make the overall experience novelistic.

Some comics consist exclusively of pictures, such as the beautifully strange Frank stories of Jim Woodring, but in its classic form, of which Ghost World by Daniel Clowes is a recent outstanding example, a comic has two distinct though parallel tracks, pictures and dialogue, the latter usually enclosed in speech balloons. There may be an occasional authorial intrusion like “Meanwhile … ” at the top of a panel, but basically the only language is the speech of characters, sometimes supplemented by unspoken thoughts in special scallop-edged balloons. These cartoon peeks into a character’s head correspond to asides in a play—a comparison I make advisedly, because most comic books have more in common with play scripts or screenplays than with novels. Like plays and movies, for example, comics are not especially well suited to probing their character’s innermost thoughts, partly because the thought balloon—that brain fart linked by a series of diminishing bubbles to its source—is such an artificial and silly-looking convention. (Like the theatrical aside—which due to a similar silliness problem is now all but extinct in serious drama—it works best as a joke.) A better name for many so-called graphic novels would be “paper movies,” or maybe “closet dramas,” as literary critics call plays that are intended to be read and not performed. Like plays, most comics consist, as far as the “language track” is concerned, strictly or principally of dialogue. As in plays, the “visual track” lays great emphasis on props, stage business, mise-en-scène, and on the physical appearance of the characters—their builds, clothing, hairstyles, facial expressions, body language, and so forth. Like plays, comics do this more gracefully and less painfully than novels, conveying in a glance a wealth of information that would be tedious to read, and tempting to skip.

In addition to dialogue and pictures, some cartoonists employ a third track that corresponds to the voice-over in movies: narration either by an omniscient third-person narrator or by the main character. (The master of the omniscient voice-over is Ben Katchor, though he uses it more memorably in his Julius Knipl strips than in his one book-length comic, The Jew of New York.) Clowes uses a first-person voice-over in David Boring, [3] and Marjane Satrapi uses the technique in Persepolis, as befits a book that is both a personal memoir and a history of recent events in Iran. The more frequent and garrulous the voice-overs, the more a graphic novel will resemble an ordinary novel, but voice-overs are almost as suspect in comics as in movies. The whole point of graphic novels is that they tell their stories by other means than normal novels, not just that they decorate those stories with pictures.

One thing that comics do surprisingly well—considering that they consist of static images—is represent physical action. One reason they don’t get more respect, after all, is that most people think of them as the printed counterparts of the most lowly and lurid action movies, all fistfights, gunshots, and explosions. Is it because our memories retain even the most action-packed experiences as vivid stills—as JPEGs and not MPEGs—that the frozen images of action in comic books are so effective? In any case, comics like movies depend for their flow on persistence of vision, though in the case of comics the vision is that of the mind’s eye, which is more suggestible and more persistent than the eye of flesh. A skilled cartoonist can give the illusion of continuous action with a series of images that in a film would register as an especially jerky succession of jump cuts.

In some ways, though—such as their smaller-than-life images, or the solitude in which they’re typically enjoyed—comics have less in common with cinema than with TV, and as long as we’re imagining alternatives to “graphic novel,” I’ll suggest one more that will never be adopted because it so utterly fails to satisfy that aforementioned craving for legitimacy: “pocket sitcoms.” Ghost World, with its minimal overall plot and its eight episodes, each focusing on the same two central characters and each with its own arc, resembles nothing so much as a well-written, well-cast, well-acted sitcom. Clowes even seems to suggest that metaphor by shading his (otherwise black-and-white) drawings with blue instead of gray, as if we were watching these scenes on the bluish screen of a black-and-white set, maybe the very set featured on the first page—and one reason I disliked the full-color movie version was that I was accustomed to characters who were not only two-dimensional, and as ghostly silent as all comic-book characters (by the way, the title doesn’t make much sense for the screen version), but monochrome. [4]

If you compare Ghost World with any of Clowes’ compilations [5] of brief odds and ends from Eightball, the self-published magazine where most of his comics first appeared, you do notice one important novelistic feature: restriction not just to a single cast of characters and a single (though ramified) story, but, maybe more importantly, to a single graphic style and a single standard of realism throughout. The short pieces in Clowes’ most recent compilation, Twentieth Century Eightball, vary from cinema-verité slices-of-life (“The Walk”) to whacked-out surrealism (“The Happy Fisherman”). Much of the fun of these collections, as of Eightball itself, is the heterogeneity; there are few short-story collections that vary as much in matter, mood, and manner. Discontinuity is one thing that comics do better than any other art form—think of the Krazy Kat strips where the landscape changes drastically from panel to panel, an effect that would soon render any movie unwatchable, any novel unreadable. Comics have an affinity for discontinuity, incongruity, non sequitur, and a suspension of physical laws. Something about the medium seems to militate against sameness—against, say, the constraint of drawing the same characters in the same style page after page for the length of a book. Thus David Boring includes the lovingly rendered cover and assorted panels from a fictitious comic book by the title character’s cartoonist father; Art Spiegelman’s Maus devotes four pages to a reprint of an early comic by Spiegelman, in a style jarringly different from the rest of the book; and Canadian cartoonist Seth, in It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, a book-length comic about Seth’s fascination with an obscure New Yorker cartoonist from the 1950s, includes an appendix of authentic-looking 1950s magazine cartoons, drawn in a style and reflecting a sensibility utterly unlike the rest of Seth’s book, though in fact Kalo, Seth’s obscure cartoonist, never existed; he and his strips are figments of Seth’s imagination—a hoax that didn’t come to light till well after the book was published.

In comics, where it’s no more difficult to make an ocean liner fly than to make one sink, and where no high-budget feats of casting, costuming, makeup, sets, or special effects are required to increase the dramatis personae, multiply the locales, or do the impossible, it takes great self-restraint for cartoonists to limit themselves to the sufficient, but it is precisely such control that enables the expression of a sensibility instead of just the spinning out of a series of jokes or thrills. At one point in Maus (where, as everyone should know by now, Nazis are drawn as cats and Jews as mice), the Art Spiegelman figure visits his therapist, Pavel. After telling us that Pavel’s apartment is “overrun with stray dogs and cats,” our cartoonist worries, “Can I mention this, or does it completely louse up my metaphor?” Such scruples are not idle. It is by virtue of what they keep out as much as what they put in that cartoonists create their worlds—the uncannily effective reduction of the Holocaust to a cat-and-mouse game; the funny, punked-out, utterly convincing version of teenage girldom presented by Ghost World; the beautiful, beautifully bleak laughscape of Chris Ware’s amazing Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, maybe the best “graphic novel” yet. These three books, by the way, have nothing in common but their excellence, and that may be the real reason why it’s hard to find a common label for them. But you don’t need a label to buy them and read them.