It’s Long Past Time to Retire the Term “Graphic Novel”

In comics, we’re always struggling with titles and definition. At least, some of us struggle with these things when conversing with people outside the field of comics studies. For everyone I’ve ever met who is “in the know”, the medium is simply called “comics”, and we leave it at that. It’s not a perfect term, to be sure, and has connotations that create confusion in people not familiar with the medium, but after decades of hand-wringing and debate, it’s the best we have.

No less than Will Eisner proposed the term “sequential art” (which is, of course, where our organization gets its name) and Scott McCloud seconded it in his influential popular introduction to our medium, Understanding Comics. It’s an accurate term, the result of reason and consideration, and not a little bit of debate, but it’s not perfect: it’s unwieldy, it sounds too technical and scholarly, and it frankly smacks of a term designed by committee. It’s doubtful that such a term will ever catch on with the casual comics fan, let alone the public at large.

This whole debate is really predicated on the notion that the public at large doesn’t want to use the term “comic book”. There seems to be a belief that using that term locks-in certain presuppositions about the medium (that it’s just “Children’s literature”, that it’s always supposed to be funny, etc.) that we would rather leave behind. (True story: at a College where I used to teach, I once proposed a course on comics studies and was told by the department head that it would be superfluous, since “We already have a course in children’s literature”. I was tempted to toss a copy of V for Vendetta at her, but thought better of it.) The theory goes that if my former department head thought of comics as “sequential art”, she wouldn’t have automatically dismissed the entire medium as children’s lit, but is changing the perspective of someone so obviously ignorant of our favourite medium really reason enough to change what we call it? Why must we, as comics fans, analysts and scholars, bend to the whims of those who don’t even read comics and know nothing of them?

Obviously, the answer has to do with acceptance and legitimacy, in the halls of academia. It seems we have two choices: stick to the term “comics” and wait for the world to come to us, or start using “Sequential art” and teach the world what it means. The latter requires work and effort, perhaps more work than it’s worth. The former simply requires us to keep doing what we’re doing, and eventually the world will notice. It’s no secret I favour the former.

But one term that simply refuses to go away is “Graphic Novel”, and while an argument can be made for labeling our favourite medium “sequential art”, “graphic novel” is outdated, inaccurate and needs to be stricken from the lexicon. The reasons for this are many and varied, so let’s list some:

  1. The term didn’t originate with comics creators, but rather with comics labels and marketing departments, in order to sell expensive collections of full story arcs in the 1980s.
  2. The term pigeonholes the medium into a single type of storytelling, namely the long-form novel. The definition does not allow the inclusion of single-panel stories, short stories, autobiographical non-fiction, comics history, comics journalism, abstract comics, etc. etc. etc.
  3. One would never apply the term to non-comics literature – in other words, we all accept that there are short stories, non-fiction, opinion pieces, plays and poetry with the written word, and they’re all accorded a place in the academic canon. But somehow, when it comes to comics, we’re supposed to consider everything a “novel”, which itself is a slightly antiquated term applying to a type of literature prevalent in the 19th century.
  4. It’s pompous and inaccurate. “Sequential art” may also sound pompous but at least it’s inclusive and accurate. “Graphic novel” has the double-barrelled fault of being lofty as well as exclusive and non-descriptive.

With all those faults, why on earth do schools, libraries (including the Vancouver Public Library) and the popular media insist on using the term? I suspect it has something to do with an unwillingness to refer to comics as comics. That’s somewhat understandable, as I suppose someone of a certain age and experience would sniff haughtily at the notion of giving serious critical attention to something called a “comic book”, and thus junior writers, editors and librarians are forced to use the term in the interests of pleasing their bosses and (so they think) their audience. This reflects the lingering stain on the reputation of comics as a junior medium, unworthy of adult contemplation.

We should put this in perspective: The Dark Knight Returns came out 30 years ago. That’s thirty years, not three, and not ten. That’s essentially a generation. Serious comics for adults were also popular in the 1970s – earlier still. So, the notion of serious stories, using the medium as an art form with unique properties (not just as fodder for the movie adaptation) is hardly new. Yet we constantly seem to encounter, even in the mid-2010s, people who are discovering this fact for the first time. I’ve even had people say, “Comics? Don’t you mean graphic novels?” (and I suspect I’m not alone in that). For that attitude to still linger, someone, somewhere, is not doing their job. Using the term “graphic novel” is essentially a way for adults who don’t know anything about comics to take comics seriously without being laughed at by those even more culturally unaware. That’s a pretty weak justification for using such an outdated, inaccurate and exclusive label.

I mentioned in a previous piece that when you hear “graphic novel”, think of Sam the Eagle saying it, with all the self-important pomposity that implies. Once we start to make that term a figure of fun and ridicule, we can then re-claim “comics”, a short, inclusive, historically justified, culturally embedded and accurate label for our favourite medium. We should never be ashamed to say, openly and publicly, “I read comics”. If that term is a problem, it’s someone else’s problem. Let them bend and twist their minds for a while, rather than pandering to their bias and their ignorance. We should proudly admit what we all know: comics are great, we love them, and we take them seriously as art.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics

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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

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4 Comments

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly on this topic, Ian. I’m currently a scholarly book on comics and while it’s fantastic so far, the author was referring to a series of stories in a particular comic and called it a “graphic novel” and I just groaned. So far it seems to be the only instance she’s done that, so I won’t hold it against her ;-) But in all seriousness, it took me out of the book for a second and made me comment aloud at how clunky that term is, how inappropriate, even, as you so perfectly pointed out.

    I have a friend who’s a librarian and I can remember a few years ago he was telling me about how difficult it was to get comics taken seriously by his fellow librarians at his library. One even made a comment about shelving them in with children’s literature, so very similar to your experience with your department head.

    I agree that sequential art is a very apt description of the medium and I actually love it. But you’re right, it can be a bit unwieldy to use in conversation. I prefer just calling them comics and making the rest of the world catch up.

  2. That second line is missing a word (typing too fast). I meant to write “I am currently READING a scholarly book…”

  3. I think when people started using the term, it was a kind of way of marketing collections, like DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. I think it’s kind of morphed to refer not simply to a collection but to a long-form story, with an emphasis on the OGN (original graphic novel, meaning non-reprint, non-collection). Used in this context, I’m not bothered by it at all. I don’t think of six-issue collections of most DC or Marvel titles as “graphic novels” — just as collections, as content repackaged in larger serialized volumes. However, an original hardcover or a mini-series collection that’s truly complete and meant to be read as a novel-like complete experience (novels mostly don’t seem to be doing this anymore, but you get the idea) can be called a graphic novel, and that still means something to me. I’m not sure I’d use it for a collection unless it’s a special case, though. But yeah, if it’s just an attempt to “elevate” or “substantiate” comics, there’s no need. And I think it has fallen out of favor to a degree.

    Good point about how the term’s stuck around for a generation!

    I do think “comic books” are a super dumb name, though. It’s like still calling them “funnies.” But that’s another topic!

    As usual, thanks for the thoughtful piece, Ian!

  4. Hey Ian, a nice piece and I agree with your ideas.

    To me the term graphic novel refers to something that was WRITTEN (or conceived) of as a complete work, with a beginning, middle and end such as Dark Knight Returns, whether it took 1 day or ten ears to complete doesn’t matter. It’s the vision of the project.
    to me books like Watchmen and Tintin are graphic novels in that they offer a complete story in one book. The story may or may not relate to other stories featuring that character, but the book in hand is a single volume, something written and conceived as distinct from newspaper strips and monthly periodicals (monthly comic books).

    So we can throw the term graphic novel out, but then you have a vacuum. Something will replace it given that language tends to evolve into more complexity rather than the reverse.

    Anyhow, in the modern sense, “graphic novel” has lost any real sense of meaning.
    A trade paperback of a six issue Punisher run to me is clearly NOT a graphic novel.When it IS used in that text, it is clearly just a marketing term.

    However, if you look at those Marvel “Graphic Novels” published in the 80s there were indeed two (or was it three?) Punisher graphic novels, they were not monthlies, they were bookshelf format stuff.

    So we can call them Pancake-Hammerlock-Breakfast-Punisher stories for all I care. But they do exist, regardless of what we call them, or any other project like them. The label doesn’t change the content.

    What would you call Paul Pope’s “Heavy Liquid” for example?
    Or Grant Morrison’s “All Star Superman”?
    It’s not a rhetorical question, I do want to know.
    Would you call it a comic, or a book or what?
    I’d like to call them Reading Comestibles. You probably should not read and then consume them, but you could, perhaps on a dare.

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