Monday, 19 September 2016

The Graphic Novel: it's not the form, is it?

Jan Baetans and Hugo Frey (The Graphic Novel, 2015) argue for a distinction between 'comics' and 'graphic novels'. Considering differences in form, content and publication format, they present a series of comparisons between the two forms.

Beginning with form, they consistently fail.

'Differences... are not always very clear-cut,' they understate, before noting that the great exemplars of the graphic novel, Watchmen and Dark Knight 'started life as comics and then were republished as graphic novels'. Suggesting that graphic novelists will try to give a distinctive 'twist' to their work (without defining what this might mean), they identify 'layout and narrative' as the key areas.

Apparently, the past century has seen a consistency in the use of a grid system which is designed to be read sequentially. Ignoring the shifts in the use of the grid pattern (for example, EC comics frequently separated text from image, Little Nemo made adventurous use of the standard grade without using the changes in perspective that characterise comics from the 1940s onwards), Baetans and Frey gesture vaguely at the ability of the graphic novelist to 'explore' the rules of composition. 

Julie Doucet is then invoked as a 'graphic novelist' who deliberately aims at an ugly aesthetic. Never mind that Doucet's Dirty Plotte was published from 1991 by Drawn and Quarterly in a 'regular comic' format, or that she announced her retirement from comics in 2006, and her subsequent work has followed a more fine art path of collage and illustration. ("A Good Life: The Julie Doucet Interview" by Dan Nadel,  The Drama, issue no. 7, 2006). 

A stronger example is Will Eisner, who consciously experimented with breaking the traditional frame format throughout his career: his masterwork, The Spirit, however, was clearly produced in the era before the graphic novel became a defined term and his graphic novels, written from the 1970s in prestige formats, share with the comic book the inventiveness Baetens and Frey claim as a distinctive quality of the graphic novel.

Finishing off by claiming that 'the abstract comic' was unthinkable before the graphic novel enabled it, Baetens and Frey reveal a poor reading of Robert Crumb's 1960s' work, which frequently eschewed narrative or coherence for an illusive, psychedelic series of juxtapositions.

While this is only round one in their attempt to define the graphic novel - or their use of the term - pages 8 to 10 are a spectacularly poor effort, falling between the stools of vagueness and weak historiography. 

Will their focus on content redeem them?

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