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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.