Sunday, June 29, 2008

On the Length of Graphic Novels

This began as a comment on this post at Abigail Nussbaum's blog Asking the Wrong Questions, but it was substantial enough that I am reposting it here (with a few elaborations at the end). The quote it begins with is from Abigail's original post, which is a review of three recent graphic novels.

One of my greatest complaints about graphic novels is that very few of them are novels at all, by which I don't mean that it is ridiculous to call a memoir like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home a novel, though clearly it is, but that the amount of narrative material in most graphic works barely amounts to a novella. Black Hole may have taken Charles Burns ten years to put together, but I read it in a little more than an hour. It's hard for a work that demands so little of a reader's time to develop the breadth and heft that I associate with novels (or novel-like works of non-fiction).
I think Abigail's right about this, but I'm not sure that's the right frame of reference. I think graphic novels, in terms of the amount of "content" (however defined) they contain and the amount of time they take to absorb are comparable to movies. Movies, too, take "a little more than an hour" per go-through (1.5 - 2, usually, sometimes longer). And movies generally also have about a novella's worth of content to them (in my experience, novels made into movies need to be cut, short stories expanded; novellas work about perfectly).

Note that movies, too -- like graphic novels -- take an inordinate amount of time to produce: usually more people in fewer time, rather than fewer people in more, but still a great number of hours of human labor go into them.

I don't think this has much to do with the potential of the various mediums, nor with their youth/age or anything; I think it's mostly a matter of how human beings absorb visual (or in the case of movies visual/audio) versus linguistic information.

There are, of course, some graphic novels that take a lot longer to read (as, in fact, Abigail has noted in the past on her blog -- it'd be interesting maybe to compile a list...), just as there are long films, or films that flatly require multiple viewings for comprehension (and are thus effectively longer), just as their are novels that are short and rip quickly by. But these are the exceptions.

For graphic novels, incidentally, an additional limiting factor may be financial: it costs more to print illustrated pages than prose, and so graphic novels can't be as long as, say, a Dickens novel. (Or, if they are, they are serialized -- as was Dickens, for that matter.) Not to mention the basic financial issue of paying for the work to create the thing (whether lots of people for a year or two or a few people for many years). Thus lengthier comics narratives tend to be serials -- again comparable to movies, where the longer works are, in fact, TV shows (which in better cases work as long, serialized movies) -- where the financial burdens can be spread over time, interest can be gauged, etc.


As far as Abigail's complaint that "it is ridiculous to call a memoir like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home a novel", she would perfectly right if it were prose.* But, as I've noted before, this is simply the way the term "graphic novel" has been used since its introduction: it's never just meant the comics equivalents of what in prose would be called novels (literally since the term's introduction: the first widely-publicized work to be called a "graphic novel" (Will Eisner's A Contract With God) was a collection of shorter stories). A "graphic novel" is, generally, a book-length, sophisticated* comic of any variety, whether a single work or a collection, and whether fiction or non-fiction.

To repeat the point I made in my earlier rant on this: "graphic novel" is an odd and imperfect term, I admit, since it sounds -- to those unfamiliar with the medium -- like it refers to a type of novel. But it's the term we have -- the "wrong and only name for it" (to borrow a phrase from David Hartwell in referring to another publishing category ill-served by reviewers). It's now an official category in many bookstores. There are magazines and web sites and college classes on the form. It's what these things are called.

(And again, I think this is a common linguistic phenomenon -- that is, that a compound term will include items that won't be within the realm of the root term. I don't know the name for this, though, if there is one. Is there a linguistic in the house?)


Finally, a few stabs at the list. What is being listed are graphic novels that take a long time to read -- ones that have the heft of a novel in terms of time it takes to read them (putting aside the issue of artistic merit or lack thereof). This is easy to do if you consider a serial as a unit; but let's restrict the list to items available in a single volume. Books that, in Art Spiegleman;s words (in describing his ambitions for Maus) are comics that you need a bookmark to read. Off the top of my head: Maus, natch; Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's From Hell; Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons's Watchmen; Jeff Smith's Bone; many of the various Love and Rocket books by los bros. Hernandez (certainly the really big hardcover ones published a few years ago); a few volumes at least of Dave Sim's Cerebus; Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison; Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan; and both issues of Shane Simmons's Longshot (which is pretty impressive for 24 page comics). A few of these are arguable; but there are a lot more, too. Leave other suggestions in comments.

* Although the mistake is so common among my students that I wonder if the word "novel" is shifting into simply a pretentious word for "book" -- or, perhaps, a word meaning any book-length work, as long as it is a single piece (and not a collection of shorter ones). If so, it's a trend I'd resist -- there'd be no word left for "novel", which is something worthy of a term -- but in matters of linguistic change resistance is, most often, futile.


Anonymous said...

I'd add: Dash Shaw's new one Bottomless Belly Button, David B's Epileptic, Chippendale's Ninja, a few of Tezuka's omnibuses (MW, Kirihito), McKean's Cages.

Really any big serial collection. If we can count something like Dickens as a big novel, then things like manga series or comic book collections should count too (disregarding the endless serials like most superhero stuff).

Neil Cohn said...

Ahem... in answer to your question: "Compound Noun." Sometimes they're decomposable, sometimes not, and have a wide range of variability in how much the root words affect the whole.

Nice post though... this is partially why I now prefer using "graphic" as an all purpose adjective, giving us graphic books, graphic non-fiction, graphic poems, etc.

Patrick Rennie said...

I think the art form jumped the shark when we started calling them comic books. Comic. You know: comedy, funny, funnies. Not a drop of drama in sight. Also – book. So there you are.

I’ve noticed that “trades” has been popping up more to describe the format, too, especially when matched with “floppies” for the comic books.

Stephen said...

Derik: good additions. And I didn't mean to exclude big serials on principle -- I agree they count -- but more because it would open up the question indefinitely: it was a practical limitation for the sake of the game, not a principled one.

Neil: Yeah, but I mean what is the name of the specific variety of compound noun in which the overall meaning is not a variety of what the head of the phrase (is that the term?) refers to on its own. Got a name for that?

On the other issue, I think we disagree, though: I prefer to use "graphic novel" as the catch-all term, and simply get people to the point where they understand that it has little to do with "novel" as a term on its own, in that it includes nonfiction, collection, etc; as little to do with them as "comics" does with the comic, which leads me to...

Patrick: I think we'll have to disagree on this one, as I like comics which are dramatic and serious (oh, funny ones too, but probably on balance the former more). And I think that "comics" -- as used now -- has only a etymological/historical connection to "comedy", not a semantic/conceptual one.


Patrick Rennie said...

The first strips were comedies, not dramas (Yellow Kid and its imitators and competitors in America). Thus, the comic part of comic strip. The dramas came later. Heck, the first "comic books" were collections of those funny strips. Add in the fact that many of those reprints were in the form monthly periodicals, which would make them magazines not books, and you get a name for the format that only makes sense after everyone has had 80 years to get used to it.

Who said I didn’t like dramas? I’m talking about the publishing history of the art and the goofy name it saddled itself with back in the day. Today, with graphic novels, we may again be looking at a situation where marketing forces trump the creation of a reasonable name for the publishing category.

Stephen said...

Patrick -- I took this comment:

I think the art form jumped the shark when we started calling them comic books. Comic. You know: comedy, funny, funnies. Not a drop of drama in sight

-- to indicate what you wanted in the medium. I didn't realize that you were simply describing the history of the form & its name (which I'm familiar with). Rereading it, though, I see what you were getting at.

Anyway, I don't see any of the names -- comic books, comics or graphic novels -- as that bad, really. Films can still be films even if they're shot digitally and never get within a mile of actual film. Names evolve. Personally I'd favor sticking with one -- graphic novel, most likely -- rather than trying to change it again.