On July 24th the longlist of nominations for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction was published. Not, in itself, news of much appeal to me (or to the usual sites I visit), but this year something was different: you could see announcements on the longlist in such places as Vulture and the Comics Beat. The reason being Sabrina. Not the teenage witch, though that would have been an unexpected delight, but rather a new graphic novel by the esteemed Nick Drnaso (whose debut work Beverly I’ve managed to miss) – the first of its kind to be nominated for a Man Booker Prize.
The result of this decision has seen many of expected “harrumph” responses – that comics are lesser than books, that this is the beginning of slippery slope, and then by 2020 they might nominate Swamp Thing (when everybody knows Man Thing is far superior). And to these responses there has been the expected counter responses – extolling the virtues of sequential art, citing the rich history of the medium stretching all the way back to cave paintings and probably citing both Scott McCloud and Art Spigleman more times than is healthy for any sane individual.
In response to the nomination, a headline from online journal The Conversation read “Graphic Novels are Novels.” It seems that comics, once again, have arrived. Except one little thing – graphic novels are not novels. They are comics, comic books, sequential art, cartoon-strip book, etc. They are not novels. Just because Sabrina is a narrative bound between two covers does not make it a novel, no more than a script for a movie would be a novel. This is not to say they are lesser. Simply that they are different.
Now, I am not one of these puritans who seek to define comics in a particular narrow way and exclude everything that doesn’t fit their definition. Watchmen is comics, The Far Side is comics, Captain Underpants is (mostly) comics.
Also, there is no clear line separating one medium from another. What do you call something like Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – a novel in which the text interacts with (and is dependent upon) various images, including full pages of older comics? Or how do illustrated novels function without their illustrations? That being said, the recent Man Booker Prize offers no other borderline cases, and Sabrina sticks out. The first graphic novel offered in over fifty years.
This is not a compliment.
I am not expecting the creator of Sabrina, or the publisher, to reject the honor (that would be foolish on their part), but I am hoping comics’ critical sphere pulls itself together. This is the space year 2018, and it boggles the mind comics culture still seeks out the respect of the literati in such a manner. “Graphic Novels are novels.” They are not. When Will Eisner coined the term, he wasn’t even referring to anything approaching a novel. Contract with God was a collection of short stories, it was an obvious swipe at respectability when the medium had none. And anyway, that book was preceded by the likes of It Rhymes with Lust, which was mostly ignored because of its disreputable genre (a down and dirty noir tale), and possibly because the artist was African American. Compared to the “proper” literary fiction aspirations of Eisner, it had no chance.
And here’s the thing: the ploy worked, people started respecting what the medium could do. We have comics on the shelves in bookstores and libraries, parents willingly buy them for young children, adults no longer need to hide their hobby in fear of being seen as dumb. Comics have arrived. But on the other hand, it only worked up to a point. People became so focused on the terminology that many seem to believe that there is a line between “graphic novels” (good, respectable) and “comics” (that crap with super-heroes). There isn’t, it’s a marketing term, just like there isn’t a real line separating “paperback fiction” from “fiction.”
In many ways, Sabrina is closer to Transformers vs. G.I.Joe than it is to other nominees of the year like Washington Black or The Mars Room. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Transformers vs. G.I.Joe would never be nominated for something like the Man Booker Prize (which is a shame because it is a genuinely superior artistic achievement to just about anything published under the term “graphic novel” over the last five years). It is, after all, only comics. And here’s the thing about putting something like Sabrina on the award longlist: it does not elevate comics as a medium, it’s a degradation. If there are 13 items on the list and only one of them is a comic book, it means that most comics are not good enough to be considered.
I remember when Time Magazine published its list of the greatest books since 1923 and Watchmen was included. How I crowed about it. How great and good it seemed that comics were getting their due. But in retrospect this was a terrible decision, because if comics are fit to compete with books but only one comic was chosen it means comics are lesser, that they are mostly crap. If the list truly offered equal representation to comics it would include the likes Elektra: Assassin or From Hell or Love and Rockets or many other fine candidates. (Imagine considering both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Stray Toasters and deciding which one with the talking lion was superior.) If the Man Booker Prize truly considered comics as equal we would probably see something like My Favorite Thing is Monsters or The Pervert on the list.
You know what? It’s perfectly fine that they are not nominated (though I imagine the creators wouldn’t say “no thanks”), because graphic novels are not novels. The things that make a superior novel are not necessarily the things that make a superior graphic novel, just as they are not the things that make a superior script for a film or a computer game. These are different media. Comics are good, very good even. There are many good comics released every year – and many more gems from the past. The acknowledgment of the Man Booker prize is great for that particular book (I am sure it will do wonders for the sales, and considering how hard it is to be a cartoonist, I hope they drown Nick Drnaso in cash like he’s Scrooge McDuck), but it should mean nothing for comics as a medium.
Graphic novels are not novels. They are comics.