March 09, 2007

On Terminology

In the last post I mentioned picking up a trade paperback, which reminded me that I've been meaning to post something about comic book terminology for a while now. For the last several years "serious" comics have started to penetrate into a more mainstream audience and with that has a very slight annoyance on my part over the term "graphic novel". First, some straight up definitions. Traditionally comics are published in three primary forms, the strip, a short form booklet, and a longer form. Comic strips are referred to as such. The short form, usually taking the shape of an 8" by 11", 22 page booklet are usually called "comic books" and even though movies based on such books have made several billions of dollars are still considered the domain of children and to consist exclusively of men wearing their underwear on the outside of their pants and punching things a lot. This is, of course, not terribly accurate, but that's not really my concern.

The long form comic is where we run into a bit of confusion and my slight annoyance. Technically, a graphic novel is a comic story written and published in a long form. Companies also, however, bind together several issues of the shorter form "comic books" into a long form book and publish that as what is known as a trade paperback.

My annoyance is simply this, I feel like the term "graphic novel" has been appropriated by mainstream folks to represent "serious" comics which are suitable for adults to read. It's used as a term to justify participation in an activity and a medium which those people still deride as beneath them by removing any mention of "comics" from the name. This becomes all the more apparent when you consider that all of Alan Moore's major works, including the much vaunted V For Vendetta and Watchmen, were originally published as individual comic book issues. Preacher, soon to be made into an HBO Original Series, was published as comic books. I don't call Faulkner's stuff literature in fear that people will think I read Danielle Steel if I call them books.

Now, I said this was a minor annoyance and that's true. A world where people are discovering that comics are more than men-in-tights is better than a world where that 's not happening, even if they're being coy about it through the clever use of labels. There is a useful place in our terminology for graphic novel, but let's agree not to use it as a code word for "cool" or "serious".


Update: Here's an excerpt from Roeper's review of 300 that's exactly what I'm talking about.

"If you thought "Gladiator" was a bit too stingy with the bloodshed, if you
felt "Sin City" could have been more stylized, if you hate it when the masses
refer to graphic novels as "comic books," this is your day.

For today brings about the release of "300," and it is the "Citizen Kane"
of cinematic graphic novels."

12 comments:

Drew said...

I would be inclined to call something like a V for Vendetta or a Watchmen a "graphic novel", whereas I would call something like the Y: The Last Man books you're been continually loaning out to everyone "trade paperbacks". The difference is a difference of format, not of seriousness. Obviously, Y: The Last Man could not be further from the ignorant stereotype of comic books.

But a Y trade is a collection of consecutive comic book issues. It's just issue A though B of the run. Yes, each book tends to function independently because they don't just release a compilation every ten issues, but collect together one or two coherent story arcs in each book, but still... it is a collection of comics.

V and Watchmen are complete stories. There, you are collecting the entire run of a title into a single volume and presenting it as a single story. V is a complete novel told in graphical form. Y Vol. 7 isn't.

That's how I use the term, and I think it makes. It means that there is a genuine distinction between graphic novels and trade paperbacks (occasionally a fuzzy one, but a distinction nonetheless), and a distinction that does not rest on subjective claims of seriousness or any other nonsense like that.

MosBen said...

But that distinction doesn't hold up across different printings of the work. "Alias" was originally published as 22 page issues, then collected as seven or eight "trades" and then in one hardcover collecting the entire series. Watchmen was published as seven or so 22 page issue comic books, as was V, and then collected into a trade. It just as easily could have been published in two smaller companion trades. Similarly, Civil War will be published, probably as a collection of several trades, though the main series will be collected in one book. The Y books contain the complete story of Yorrick Brown and his adventures will likely end with the series, thus the books contain the entire story. Similarly, Kingdom Come was published in issues and deals with characters who do indeed go on to other adventures but we didn't know that until a few years after the original was published.

MosBen said...

Ultimately, though I'm not sure I agree with your usage of the terms, you're certainly not using them in the way which annoys me.

Rob said...

Well, I can't really argue with you on this, so I'll just make a comment about the medium generally. Might as well get some mileage out of that damn Masters in English Lit. Yes, some people consider comic books as a lesser form, so they call them "comic books." Of course, when they find comic books they like, they feel guilty so they start calling them "graphic novels" as if there was a difference. It's kind of like the difference between "movie" and "film." They play "movies" on HBO and "films" on IFC, which is to say, "films" are just "movies" you like (ahem, I'm looking at you Birdman). They conveniently forget that many of these stories were released in a serialized form. People conveniently forget things like The Dark Knight Returns was originally released as a series and that many so called "serious" works were originally published in a serial format. By that I mean Dickens (they would serialize his stories in magazines. That's why some of his books are so long; he got paid for each installment. Then they'd collect them, bind them, and resell them periodically. Then finally bind them all and sell 'em as books.). And after all, aren't comic books as a medium beholden to the illuminated text form? I'm just saying that the boundaries between all of these things mean a lot less than most people think. The only question that matters is: is it good? And to tell you the truth, I wouldn't know where to put Art Spiegelman or Marjane Satrapi on the comic strip-comic book-tpb-graphic novel continuum. It's all just a muddle

Drew said...

Rob, I use "movie" and "film" interchangeably.

Ben, correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be assuming that something like "Watchman" is either a comic book, a trade, or a graphic novel. That's not the way I'm using the terms. "Watchmen" was originally released as a series of comic books, and it was later compiled into a graphic novel. Ultimate Spiderman continues to be released as monthly comic books, but also as a series of trades.

The words refer to the form only, not the content. The same content can be released in multiple forms.

Rob said...

I call shenanigans on Drew.

MosBen said...

Well Drew you system certainly makes sense, but it's still not what I prefer. Really, none of these distinctions are really "right"; the only usage I find objectionable being one which uses the terms to connote value. Personally, I think "graphic novel" should refer to works originally published as a long form work. Will Eisner's "A Contract With God", Ed Brubaker's "A Complete Lowlife", and, I believe, Spiegleman's "Maus" were all published as graphic novels. Anything published as individual issues and bound together into a longer form is a trade paperback. I think it gives the terms their own distinct meanings and eliminates overlap where a series could simultaneously be referred to as a graphic novel and a trade paperback. But hey, whatever floats your boat, as long as you're not some hipster that just got ahold of Watchmen and want to flex your cool.

Drew said...

That also makes sense. It does, however, carry the small disadvantage that distinguishing between a graphic novel and trade paperback at point-of-sale, for instance, requires a small degree of specialized knowledge about the publication history of the title. Not a serious problem, but it means that the distinction between GNs and TPs is something that's only going to be relevant to comic geeks. Some cultural commentator trying to sound with-it when discussing movie versions of "300" or "V for Vendetta" is not going to be equipped to distinguish between these two forms. You system, however, has the benefit of clarity. There is no overlap.

My system is fuzzier, but requires only that one read the book in question in order to judge whether it's a GN or TP.

MosBen said...

Well, truth be told, I'd actually prefer if both trade paperback and graphic novel were more trade names and/or special use names for those who can make the distinction. If someone, like a film critic, doesn't know the technical terms I'd rather just have them call it a comic or a comic book. And really, my complaint about the overuse of the term "graphic novel" isn't so much about championing the term "trade paperback" as it is annoyance at the fact that people can't just call a comic book a comic book.

Noumena said...

Sometime in the next three or four years, one of the members of the hiring committee for some fairly prominent university is going to follow a link to this blog off my webpage. And they're going to see the content of this blog, and they're going to ask me about it. And I have no idea how I will answer them.

MosBen said...

You'll answer them, "This is where I go for awesome!" Personally, I've always thought that if we could maintain the blog somewhere above the level of just posting about the things we did today we'd be doing alright. While I might have fallen off the "heavy content wagon" a bit, I don't think there's anything to be particularly ashamed about.

Besides, with the number of community sites where the both of us participate in substantive discussions (I actually do post on a few different political blogs on substantive issues) I don't think there's anything wrong or embarrassing about having a place where we can post about comics, movies, and other lighter things in addition to the really weighty topics.

MosBen said...

Oh, and we've officially jacked our own thread.