Saturday, June 18, 2011

Graphic Novels and the Tradition of Quality

As an aspiring comic book writer, I often browse the graphic novel section of book stores. In the last five or so years, as interest in graphic novels has increased, these sections have increased from one case at the end of the science fiction row to whole walls or more. Now for those of you still wondering, the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book is merely that, instead of being printed on glossy magazine paper, the former is printed on regular paper and bound like a paperback book. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I first heard the term “graphic novel” I pictured a whole book where the story was told in images. There are a few graphic novels out there that have originally appeared in this format, but most of them have first been published as comic books, then later bound in this way once the story is finished. Think of it as closer in format to the Victorian "Novel in Three Volumes" rather than the modern novel. To add to your confusion, the trade editions of comic books—when story arcs or a set number of a continuing comics series are bound and published—are usually displayed in book stores and some comic shops in the graphic novel section.

Of course, “graphic novel” holds another connotation as well. A comic book, well, that’s something you read as a kid. They had superheroes and monsters and generally contained nothing for the intellectual pallet of an adult. A graphic novel, now, that’s sophisticated. It’s Fitzgerald with pictures. In a society which dismisses popular culture as a lower form, graphic storytelling as such can be considered an art. In short, the term “graphic novel” is pretentious.

I’m not entirely against a little pretension now and again. Heck, why not push the boundaries of the visual narrative to see what it can do? There’s nothing wrong with getting a little arty and experimental in any medium. But why must we sacrifice the comic book to do so? We don’t call Agatha Christie’s novels something else just because they’re not as complex as Henry James. So why should comic books’ appeal to a popular audience keep them from being considered art?

Here’s something else: read the titles of any graphic novel section, and you will see a lot of familiar names. Discounting the superhero comics for now—we all know Superman and the X-Men—and you’ll see that a lot of TV shows and movie franchises, from Star Wars to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, use comic books to continue their adventures. This is nothing new—it dates back at least to the first Doctor Who comics of the 1960s if not before—and has done a lot to increase their fan bases and maintain interest in the original product. But keep looking, and you’ll find a lot of titles that are adaptation of novels, movies, and--yes--even a Neil Young album.

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. A large part of me suspect that this is just publishers’ attempts to cash in on the latest craze, hoping that, for example, people who love Neil Gaiman will buy the graphic novel version of Neverwhere, never mind that he’s a great comics writer and yet didn’t do the adaptation himself. But, I suppose, as is often said of movie versions of things, that people who would not otherwise read the book or see the movie might change their minds once they’ve read the graphic novel. I would like to believe this is true, though I’ve never come across a study that suggests it is so. I do, however, think that people who might otherwise not read comic books because of the assumption that they are for kids and middle-aged men who still live with their mothers would be attracted to graphic novels if they saw a title like Pride and Prejudice on the shelf.

And that’s troubling. In the 1950s, Fran├žois Truffaut criticized contemporary French cinema for relying on a “tradition of quality.” No, he didn’t think that films should be badly made, rather that they were too reliant on the already proven art of literary texts to legitimize themselves. For Truffaut, these literary adaptations were trying too hard to be novels instead of being films. And this is what worries me about trying to make the graphic novel version of everything. In trying to lure readers into accepting the graphic novel as a legitimate art form by trying to convince them that they’re just like the novels or movies, we run the risk of losing what makes a comic book a comic book.

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