Is there such a thing as a graphic novel, to be included as sub-genre of literature? Or is a comic always a comic?
In 1964, Richard Kyle unwittingly sparked a debate that would rage throughout fan circles and puzzle non-fans for decades to come. What did he do? He coined the term ‘graphic novel’. In 1972, DC Comics picked up the term for Issue 2 of its ‘Sinister House of Secret Love’ and it was used frequently throughout the 1970s to refer to works told predominantly through pictures. For many people, the terms ‘graphic novel’ and ‘comic’ are used interchangeably, but is there a difference between the two?
The connotations of the word ‘novel’ imply a work of some length. For most, the word calls to mind the literary works of Dickens, Tolstoy or the Bronte Sisters, suggesting that a work must have some kind of literary value in order to be considered a novel. However, as literary critics, we use a range of criteria in defining the ‘novel’ genre, including : the construction of the narrative and plot, themes, settings, characterization, use of language and relation to reality.
When considered this way, a graphic novel must be a long work which tells one story chronologically from beginning to end. If a graphic novel is written as such, and so does not need to use page space to recap previous events and rely on the audience’s memory from month to month, plots can be more involved and the narrative more complex. In turn, language can be more experimental or individualized because the book is written by a single author, rather than individual comic book issues which may change authors or illustrators between issues. We turn, then, to works such as V for Vendetta (Alan Moore, 1982) and Watchmen (Alan Moore, 1987).
Comics (or comic books), conversely, are serialized stories which are comparatively short (perhaps single issue stories or short-run stories) and tell the life story of the protagonist(s) over a period of time. Comic book series may run for years, in the same way as a soap opera, and individual issues may be collected into omnibus volumes called Trade Paperbacks (TPBs). While the individual issues are certainly comics, it could be argued that these TPBs are graphic novels, as in the oeuvre of Alan Moore, whose works such as Watchmen and From Hell were collected in omnibus form after their serialized publication.
Of all graphic novel writers and artists, it is Moore’s work which is most frequently cited by advocates of considering graphic novels to be works of literature (Which is ironic, as Moore has frequently tried to distance himself from the term, considering it to be a ‘pompous phrase thought up by some idiot in the marketing department of DC. I prefer to call them Big Expensive Comics.”, in an interview with the Telegraph in 2007). However we choose to define these books, there can be no disputing the fact that Moore’s work contains all the features listed at the beginning of this article for the definition of ‘novel’.
V for Vendetta gives an extra-textual dimension that is unique to graphic novels and comic books, in that it uses pictures and illustrations to tell its story in addition to words. Linguists and literary theorists alike are becoming increasingly interested in how extra-textual features enhance the written texts of works, and the nature of graphic novels requires the pictures to be as integral to the storytelling as the words. The extra-textuality of V for Vendetta has given rise to the famous Guy Fawkes mask, which has come to stand for personal freedom and anarchy, as well as being used in the real world during the Occupy Movement in the 2010s. While the real-world changes resulting from a novel are not usually a feature of study, we decided at the beginning of this article that a novel must have a ‘relation to reality’, and what better relation is there than to have changed reality?
Ultimately, no, Graphic Novels and Comics are not ‘just comics.’ As we have seen by scratching the surface of V for Vendetta, they can contain just as much depth, opportunity for analysis and life-enrichment as any part of the literary canon.
If you are interested in V for Vendetta’s literary credentials, there will be an article on the book on Friday.
Darren is an IGCSE and A Level English Language tutor with Oxford Open Learning. A love of reading and of all things superhero as a boy transformed into a love of graphic novels that never really went away. He is particularly interested in how graphic novels reflect culture and enjoys comparing works from Europe, North America and Asia. He also fully supports Marvel’s cinema works and hopes that superhero movies continue for years to come!