Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Rant Regarding Classification

ISBN-10: 0930289234
ISBN-13: 9780930289232
Published: DC Comics, 04/01/1995
Pages: 416
Language: English
Watchmen is one of the greatest works of literature of all time, and it is a comic book. It is not, despite what you may have read, a graphic novel. Okay, in a broad, Merriam-Webster sense, the "trade paperback" format that collects various issues of a particular comic technically is "a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book," but that definition is ludicrously broad and does not adequately reflect usage, the most important consideration for my purposes. The term "graphic novel" has been bouncing around for years, but it gained a lot of credence when comics maestro Will Eisner used it to describe his revolutionary collection of "tenement stories" published in 1978. Even at its popular inception, though, the term hardly seems accurate to me. After all, Eisner's The Contract with God Trilogy has much more in common with a collection of short stories than a novel.

The term "graphic novel" came into broad usage with DC Comics' re-publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as graphic novels in 1987. Both were originally published as limited-run comic books-- the appellation "graphic novel" was added by marketing executives to sell more copies. As comics luminary and general grump Alan Moore has said: "The problem is that 'graphic novel' just came to mean 'expensive comic book'...because 'graphic novels' were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel." That crass marketing strategy has continued into the 21st Century, as both DC Comics and Marvel have continued to stretch the applicability of the term to the point of meaninglessness. 

Commercial forces can be counted on to flail around stupidly in search of relevance, so I find it more disappointing that pretty much every mainstream bookstore, website, and magazine has started using graphic novel as a euphemism for "sure, it looks like a comic book, but you shouldn't feel bad about reading it." On being told that he wrote graphic novels instead of comic books, omni-competent writer Neil Gaiman remarked that the speaker "meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who'd been informed that she wasn't actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening." In effect, the term has become used to reclassify comic books with potential artistic merit and comfortably place them on the "literary" spectrum, which is fundamentally condescending to an entire medium.

Writers have suggested various substitutions for "graphic novel," but ultimately I think there is nothing wrong with the term when it is applied correctly. Masterworks like Maus and Blankets that were published as complete works can be described as graphic novels because they are structured in a manner that is at least novel-adjacent. However, Watchmen was published as a comic. Like practically every comic, Watchmen has a tightly circumscribed structure created by the imperative to have a satisfying mini-arc within every short issue. As fluidly as the collected Watchmen may read, it was naturally designed to be serialized and segmented. These so-called limitations are actually essential to Watchmen's superb pacing and Dave Gibbons' frighteningly detailed art. According to Annotated Watchmen, the comic's fifth issue "Fearful Symmetry" is composed so that "the entire issue’s story pages are a mirror image.  Page 1 reflects page 28, page 2 reflects page 27, and so forth; the two-page spread on pages 14-15 is where the mirror lies.  Each page is a reflection both of layout and content." Have you ever read a novel that does something remotely similar?

Terminology is important, and usage is the key determinant. I don't necessarily want people to give up "graphic novel," but to accept "comic" as a term that indicates equal artistic merit. That graphic novel section in your bookstore may be totally comprised of graphic novels, but if you carry comic books don't be afraid to call them what they are. 

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