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What the hell’s a GRAPHIC NOVEL? I read COMICS.

Comic creator Will Eisner’s 1985 analysis of his own medium, Comics & Sequential Art, was an important step in freeing a long marginalized and ancient medium. The need for the cumbersome term “sequential art” shows the cultural baggage that the term “comics” carries with it. The earlier tendency of 1970’s underground comic artists to spell their medium “comix” was a similar gesture. In his book, Eisner considers comics not in terms of film or literature, but as its own medium, with its own considerations. He created a teaching tool to free the panels and dialogue bubbles of the comics page.

Almost a decade later, Scott McCloud surveyed comics and made prescriptions concerning the medium, presenting his ideas, appropriately, as comics themselves. His book Understanding Comics studies the capabilities and obstacles inherent to comics. He investigates the medium as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing did painting and poetry in “Laocoon.”

Now that intellectual culture was beginning to embrace comics, artists needed to learn how to do more than justify their medium, but create masterpieces. By stepping out of the shadows of books and movies, comics have flourished, experiencing a modern renaissance. In a phone conversation I had with McCloud several years ago, he cited the moment he realized this:

In 2001, sitting on a panel (along with Eisner) at the Chicago Humanities Festival, which for the first time designated comics as its own art form, he counted four Pulitzer Prize winners. It was a medium that had found its own terms.

Comics, as an art form, was once content to consider itself a bastardization of other media. Great works only emerge from this medium when they are considered on their own terms.

Lessing observed that painting and poetry are compromised when they attempt each other’s tasks. Hypermedia, like comics until very recently, is still a slave to old forms. Through experimentation and by analyzing its uses we can discover its fundamental affinities.

7 thoughts on “What the hell’s a GRAPHIC NOVEL? I read COMICS.

  1. Hey John,

    You know, I’ve got I think close to a thousand comics from when I was a teenager. Back when Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller tearing it up. What are they up to these days?

    I’ve got McCloud’s book somewhere on my shelves. I used to have How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. I don’t know what happened to it though. Probably lent it to someone.

    I hope you’ll do some more posts on comics.

    By the way, some of the links aren’t working.

    1. Good catch, John. Links are fixed.

      Don’t know much about Miller or Sienkiewicz or genre comics in general (not nearly as much as I should).

      How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way is a surprisingly useful resource. It’s one of the few books that always sits beside my drawing table – and I never draw guys in spandex bodysuits. McCloud’s books are great references to – they have their limits theoretically (they insist of over-defined ‘systems’ and Aristotelian hierarchies), but they’ve done a lot to blow open the way we approach comics both as creators and readers, and more than any other books in recent history they’ve got people talking – lots of people, not just some small inner circle of otaku – about graphic storytelling.

  2. Every semester my students beg me to read Watchtower. I did once read the first 8 pages and never picked it up again.

    I will try others though. We just had Pekar here and I like some of his material.

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for parting the comics waters! I’m going to post some analyses of “The Dark Knight Returns,” and I’ll be curious to hear your opinion. Let’s turn Big Other into a comics blog!

    The term “graphic novel” always left me feeling funny (and why do comics need to be “novels” to be taken seriously? why not graphic poems?). I understand why Eisner and Miller wanted to take comics (and their work) in that direction, but I prefer the term “comics” myself (a la Scott McCloud). There’s nothing to be ashamed of! Comics are awesome! (Well, except that most are garbage. But the form is awesome!)

    Hopefully more soon. Cheers,

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