On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Stop Calling All Comics “Graphic Novels!”
Posted on March 4, 2015
March 4, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column about comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.
Picture the scene. It’s the late summer of 2000, and as August draws on, the grim spectre of school rears its ugly, ink-smeared head. This threat, the return of order, of control, of the death of freedom, is nowhere more clear than in the mind of a 13 year old English boy on his way to Peterborough with his parents. Sold as a family day out, said trip is actually a ruse to disguise two ends of no interest to the boy. One is the selection and purchase of equipment for the impending school year, and the other is the Peterborough Beer Festival, which the boy’s father is keen on attending. It will be several years before the boy developed a taste for real ale himself, so neither notion captured his imagination.
Only one hope remains to our young hero; comics. He has a few pounds tucked away from washing neighbours’ cars over the long, hot summer, and a new and unexplored town offers all sorts of potential for bookshops, and newsagents – those places where comics are to be found. Remember, this is the summer X-men hit cinemas, but its ripple effect is yet to kick in, and comics are still pretty hard to come by.
The boy trudges dejected behind his parents through the town centre, a familiar mix of older buildings contrasting starkly with pollution-stained modernist architecture, each housing retailers of no great renown to a young man whose principle concerns (outside comics) are football, climbing trees, and Red Dwarf.
Then, he sees it, his salvation, a shining beacon of hope in an ash-grey afternoon!
Peterborough WH Smiths – legit
WH Smiths! The omnipresent bookseller, stationer, and magazine retail chain! Not a comic shop, and not a musty second hand bookshop, but still, the boy’s best hope yet of acquiring his sought after prize: enough comics to get him through an afternoon of shopping, and watching his dad look altogether too thoughtful about small plastic cups of beer.
The boy runs ahead; his parents know his addiction well enough by now to understand where he’s heading, and why. Once inside the shop, he pauses. It’s much bigger than the Smiths in his hometown, and the layout is quite different. If his parents reach him, they may hurry him, so scouring the entire shop is not an option. Reluctantly, the boy resolves to approach a staff member, and the only one is sight is a stunningly pretty Asian woman who looks to be in her mid-20s, re-arranging stock on a nearby magazine rack.
The boy is not well versed in talking to girls, much less beautiful women, and the onset of adolescence has made him not just acutely conscious of women, but how he appears to them. His mind reaches clumsily for the most mature way to phrase the essential question.
The boy approaches, taking care to move into her eye-line first so as not to startle her.
“Excuse me…” he says, half mumbling through thick NHS braces.
She looks up, smiling, and straightens. She’s a few inches taller than him. “Yes? Can I help you?”
Emboldened by her helpful demeanour, the boy chastises himself for his earlier nerves, and speaks again, confident now:
“Do you have any graphic novels?”
The question hangs in the air for a moment, as the woman’s smile disappears. She appears puzzled, looks him up and down, pauses, and then speaks.
“How graphic do you want?”
And that, dear reader is the story of how I, as a nervous and bookish adolescent out shopping with my parents, accidentally asked a shop assistant for erotica at the tender age of 13. It also neatly illustrates why I fucking hate the term ‘graphic novel’, because most people don’t bloody well understand it!
An actual graphic novel
Don’t get me wrong, there are some works for which the term is appropriate, those being longform works of fiction in the comics medium; literally graphic novels. All too often, though, the term is applied to works which, were they works of prose, would not be considered novels at all. The comics journalism and reportage of Joe Sacco, and the comics memoirs of Guy Delisle and Ellen Forney, are not novels in any sense, and should not be considered such. To shoehorn these works in with works of fiction suggests an artform with clear boundaries of what kind of information it can express.
Not a graphic novel, but a graphic memoir
Yes, the term ‘comics’ (and if it’s not abundantly clear, this is my preferred term) historically referred to humour strips, with ‘comic books’ referring to bound collections of such. But to suggest that this definition still hangs heavy would be a nonsense akin to demanding that films with sound no longer be referred to as ‘movies’, since they have outgrown and developed further than the simple notion of a ‘moving picture’.
The purpose of language is communication, and the word the anglophone is most familiar with, when describing our medium of interest, is ‘comics’. That and ‘graphic novel’ reeks of apology, like we’re ashamed of the medium we love, so we have to dress it up to cover our embarrassment. Fuck that noise.
I’ve met enough people over the years who approach the subject of comics with some version of the following:
“Oh, I don’t read comics. I only read graphic novels.”
In my experience, this position is particularly strong within the ranks of Neil Gaiman fans, many of whom remain convinced that superhero and adventure fiction is inherently adolescent and juvenile, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gaiman’s great ‘graphic novel’ opus, Sandman, is basically about a stroppy goth bloke whose slightly older and more mature sister is always trying to cheer him up. Nope, nothing remotely adolescent there.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (art by Sam Kieth). None more goth.
For the record, Sandman is a far-reaching and extraordinarily beautiful work, but that doesn’t give the pasty grebs who refuse to read anything else carte blanche to be snobs about a medium they scarcely understand. Anyway, I digress.
If we want our artform to be retreated with respect, we should respect it, and reject a terminology that carries within it an implicit apology for the work itself. Like prose, like film, like music, dance, or poetry, ‘graphic novels’ can explore and illuminate the human condition is an astonishing number of ways, so why would we possibly be content with a term that implies just one? Comics works as a term, because it is well understood, and ultimately isn’t that what the industry should be focussing on, helping non-readers understand just why we love comics so much in the first place?
Please, retire ‘graphic novel’ from your lexicon, at least as a catch-all term. And if you won’t do it for grumpy 28-year-old me, do it for that 13-year-old me in turn of the century Peterborough, desperately trying to backpedal after accidentally asking a pretty stranger where he could find the bodice rippers.
Now bugger off and read some comics. See you next week!