When I talk to students about comics and comics scholarship, I am regularly struck by the way they insist on referring to the form.
Me: Ok, folks. We’re going to take a look at some comics.
Students: You mean graphic novels?
Me: We have a couple graphic novels on the course, sure, but also some single-issue comic books, a comic-strip memoir, some comics journalism…
Students: … but they’re graphic novels, right? Not comics. Because we’re studying them. In school. So they’re graphic novels.
I have had variations of this conversation with colleagues (“But you’re teaching graphic novels, right? Not comics.”) and people on the internet (“I just read the best graphic novel memoir!”) and fellow serious-book-people-turned-serious-comic-people (“I don’t read comics. But I loved Maus and Fun Home.”).
Somewhere along the way, we decided to accept that “comics” are silly ephemeral reading material for children, and “graphic novels” are the serious things that get reviewed in the New York Times. We need to reject this distinction for three reasons.
1. They’re Not All Novels
Many comics aren’t released as a single volume; instead, they’re released on a periodic basis issue by issue. Eventually, they get collected into what we call “trades” or “trade papers,” but essential to the form is the episodic nature of them. When you call something like The Walking Dead a graphic novel, you’re eliding the episodic nature — and by extension, the changes in artists, writers, and other personnel that come with it.
And just because a volume is published all at once, that doesn’t necessarily make it a novel. Fun Home and Maus aren’t graphic novels; they’re memoir. You wouldn’t call The Diary of Anne Frank or Angela’s Ashes novels, right? Likewise, The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book is history, Pyongyang is travelogue, and Safe Area Gozade is journalism. If you wouldn’t call all these non-fiction forms “novels” if they were traditional print texts, you shouldn’t do it with comics.
2. They Are All Comics
The two paragraphs above suggest just a small sliver of the variety and range of work being done in comics. Admittedly, it can be hard to keep it all straight. And even when people do attend to the genre correctly, it becomes a bit of a mouthful: “graphic travelogue narrative” is one I’ve seen used in a professional review. Can’t we all agree that these wordy circumlocutions sound a bit ridiculous? The great news is that we have a beautiful, generous, and inclusive term for all graphic texts: comics.
3. You’re Reifying an Arbitrary (and probably snooty) Distinction
The real reason why I think it’s an important choice to use the inclusive term “comics” is because too often, we use the phrase “graphic novel” when we’re too scared to use “comics.” We say “graphic novel” because it sounds more serious and grown-up; because “comics” are silly and childish. But says who?
If the graphic novel is the serious form and everything else is “just” comics, we’re belying a problem that dogs contemporary discussions of comics: we privilege the literary, and we like things that are more like the literary forms we are used to. To experience all the medium of comics has to offer, we need to resist the urge to gravitate towards what we are most comfortable, and instead take a leap and try something new.
The reality is that “comics” is the preferred term of scholars and comic fans because it is inclusive, because it allows for the deep and varied promise of these amazing works of art, and because it doesn’t suggest a distinction between the supposed high art of the graphic novel and the low art of comics.
But you don’t have to take my word for it: I’ll give the last word to Encyclopedia Britannica:
For this reason comics remains a rich term, while graphic novel contains the suggestion of distaste for the supposedly childish nature of comics and is a term that holds more significance for those marketing comics to bookstores that it does for comics readers and scholars.