Comic Books and Graphic Novels
Recently a graphic novel was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Shock! Horror! This has sparked a lot of controversy online about what is Real Literature. And importantly, I think, what is the difference between graphic novels and comics? Read on for a few of my thoughts.
I didn’t get into reading comics until I was twenty. And I think that is partially down to comics having a bad rep. They’re often dismissed as childish, frivolous, or overly sexualised. I’d been reading Serious Literature for such a long time that... well, what could comics give me that I wasn’t getting already? After my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, I slipped into a bit of a reading funk. I’d had to read so many books for my studies that I’d lost a lot of the enthusiasm I’d had for stories. Combined with the post-graduation terror that many no-longer-students experience (“Oh God, what do I do now?”), I just didn’t have much motivation or energy for it. Comics got me back into reading. They held my attention and eased me back into the idea of reading for pleasure. They were the antithesis of the Serious Literature I’d been focussed on for so long.
Comics are dismissed by mainstream literature in the same way that genre literature is dismissed. “Oh, I don’t read sci-fi. I like real books.” It’s almost as if many people have forgotten that books are allowed to be fun. It’s like fun negates the intellectual value of a story. Well, that’s just not true. It might be an obvious comparison, but there’s a reason why so much of Shakespeare includes penis jokes. A story can be well-constructed, moving and very funny all at once. No matter the medium.
Let’s start with the basics. Comics aren’t just about superheroes. And they’re not just funny. For anyone who thinks comics are actually just humour, I recommend We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I dare you to even giggle after reading that emotional bombshell. Personally, I don’t usually have that much interest in superheroes, but that isn’t to say that I think other people shouldn’t enjoy them. Like with any novel, some people will like it, some won’t. The same variety of taste and writing exists in the comics industry.
Comic books. Graphic novels. What’s really the difference between them? I often hear the two terms used almost interchangeably. With one exception. If a comic is nominated for a prestigious award, it’s a graphic novel, never a comic. I give you Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso, longlisted this year for the Man Booker Prize. The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, from which “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 1991 and The Sandman: The Dream Hunters was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book in 2000, both awards that are not limited to illustrated fiction.
One might argue that a graphic novel is a stand-alone piece of writing that exists in its own universe without the need for external context. I point you back to The Sandman, often described as a graphic novel. There are ten volumes of the series, plus a number of spin-offs. There is a large universe to explore here and a reader would definitely benefit from the wider context.
Is a graphic novel then a collection of single issue comics in one collected edition, or a term for longer work to distinguish between it and single-issues? Maybe. But that’s an awful lot of emphasis on quantity over quality, isn’t it? And that isn’t even taking into account the fact that some comics include exclusive material in their single issues that doesn’t make it into the collected editions. The term 'graphic novel' does allow for the inclusion of non-fiction work, which 'comics' doesn't. 'Graphic novel' does make a distinction between work that is published at once and periodical literature. However, with the increasing variety of media, both physical and online, and the use of collected volumes of comics, this seems like a pretty small distinction for a reader to make. And yet, both the terms 'comic book' and 'graphic novel' are loaded with meaning and assumptions about the content, which are not based on the work's method of publication.
My personal opinion on the term ‘graphic novel’ is that it has become a meaningless term. It has become the term used by the ‘intellectual elite’ to describe a comic that is the exception to the rule. And rule is that comics are for kids. (“Oh no, this isn’t a comic. It’s a graphic novel.”) It’s the kind of phrase that permits snobbishness to take the backseat for a limited period of time. It’s almost a re-branding of comics to pander to those who think that kind of fiction is beneath them. Personally, I object to the use of the term rather than the term itself, as I think it perpetuates a needless hierarchy of what is the best kind of fiction.
I would even argue that comics are better suited to certain stories than non-illustrated fiction. For example, representation of ethnicity is much more easily done without sounding like tokenism. All too often, the way people of colour are described in fiction by white writers ends up sounding uncomfortably fetishistic. Obviously, comics have no need to describe someone’s skin colour.
Secondly, I think comics are better suited to sex. Sex scenes are notoriously difficult for any writer. For evidence, just look up any of the Bad Sex Awards. I rest my case. For a perfect example of how comics can represent sex and sexuality better than novels, I recommend Sunstone by Stjepan Šejić. Part love-story, part exploration of BDSM. Nothing like Fifty Shades of Grey. I defy any novel to include quite so much sex without it becoming either repetitive or hilarious. And yet, Šejić manages five volumes of it without it ever feeling like a caricature of sex. Some things are just better expressed through imagery.
On the other hand, I also think that there is a lot of objectification in the comics industry. Take a look at the work of Shreya Arora, who has been in the news recently. She is a graphic design student who re-imagines comic book covers that objectify female superheroes and replaces them with male superheroes in the same poses. Her work really drives home how for female characters, sexual attractiveness trumps everything else. There are absolutely issues within the comics industry, particularly the representation of women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people. But this isn’t exclusive to this medium. It's a widespread problem in all media.
A few final thoughts. Whether you are already a reader of comics or not, it’s important to remember that comics are a medium, not a genre. And like everything else, there will be good writing and there will be bad writing. There are plenty of stories waiting to be told in one form or another and to start limiting them seems like a shame. If you don’t like sci-fi, there’s no reason why you’d enjoy sci-fi in comics, but to write comics off entirely as a single entity is just ignorance of the world. Try a few recommendations. You might be surprised.
And more importantly, reading is allowed to be fun!