ACLU comi… I mean “graphic novel”!

Apparently the ACLU has an “online graphic novel” titled Defenders of Freedom up at their site. I find their use of wording interesting. The piece itself states, “We are not trying to disguise a civics lesson in a comic book” — though their tagline calls it their “first graphic novel” (apparently more will follow?).

This seems like another instance of “graphic novel” being used as an upscale synonym for “comics” — without regard for format (it’s on the web!) — as opposed to using it to denote a separate categorical frame/artitic movement. The quote in the piece bears this out, since “comic book” is used fairly negatively here (and straight-up ties it to the notion of superheroes), when the work is obviously done in the “comic medium.”

Here again a notion of a “visual language” would be useful. What the ACLU is trying to say (I think) is that they want to communicate this valuable information in a graphic form that is accessible (visual language), but they don’t want it to have the stigma of “comics” (the social construct associated to superheroes, etc.) biasing people’s opinions of it.


  • Have you read the ACLU Press Release about that “graphic novel,” Neil? Here it is:

    ACLU Takes the Fight for Civil Liberties to the Comic Book Pages (9/5/2007)

    ACLU Joins Forces with Comic Book Legend Art Spiegelman and Others to Launch Limited-Edition Comic Book Defenders of Freedom


    NEW YORK – From Iron Man being appointed President Bush’s Secretary of Defense to the release of Marvel’s “Civil War” series, comic books today are bringing political issues directly to their readers. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union — the real-world organization on the frontlines of the battle to protect civil liberties — is putting on a mask and cape and venturing into the comic book world.

    “Young people are the future of our democracy, and comic books have inspired young people for generations,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “Defenders of Freedom is a new way for us to tell our stories and motivate the next generation of civil libertarians to stand up for their rights.”

    Released as a limited-edition comic book in print and in digital format today, Defenders of Freedom features two original stories written and illustrated by a team of seasoned professionals. “Blue Collar,” written by Jimmy Palmiotti and inked by Rick Burchett, tells of a man targeted by a racist police officer. “A Question of Obligation,” illustrated by Mark Badger and written by Matthew Manning, is about what happens when the government gets in the way of civil liberties.

    Defenders of Freedom also features a special introduction by Romero, written and inked by Patty Scanlon, and a back cover by Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman, who brought comic books out of the toy closet and onto the literature shelves with his masterful Holocaust narrative Maus.

    Part of an ongoing effort to reach a new audience of young people, Defenders of Freedom will be distributed in a number of new ways, extending the message far beyond traditional comic book shelves. Building on the increasing popularity of web-based comic books, Defenders of Freedom is available in digital format on StandUp (, the ACLU’s Web site for young people. The graphic novel, which is a limited edition, will also be handed out via “guerilla marketing” street teams in seven U.S. cities (Philadelphia, PA; Washington, DC; Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Madison, WI, and Columbus, OH) and the ACLU is distributing print copies to its members and supporters to read and share with youth and new audiences.


    By my quick count, the term “comic book(s)” appears ten times in the press release, while “graphic novel” appears just once. So if the folks at the ACLU really don’t want Defenders of Freedom “to have the stigma of ‘comics,'” they’re doing an absolutely wretched job of it. LOL!

  • That raises an interesting question. At what point does an online comic cease to be a “comic” and become an online graphic novel. I’ve used the terms interchangably based on an unofficial rule of page count and status of completion.

  • Fabricari, I think that is another difficulty with the terms.

    From my perspective, the visual language that these things are written in is similar, while the social usage isn’t. “Comics” and “graphic novels” are just different uses of a common language — like the difference between “articles” and “novels.” How the web comes into this is an interesting test of the boudaries of categories.

    Personally, I think of graphic novels as being print objects — often of a variable genre type. But, I’d be more comfortable if we didn’t use jargon for the names of these things in general and just maybe used an all purpose adjective like “graphic”:

    “graphic stories”, “graphic books”, “graphic essays”, etc.

    Hmm… maybe I should write up a whole post about this…

  • Neil writes:

    “Personally, I think of graphic novels as being print objects — often of a variable genre type. But, I’d be more comfortable if we didn’t use jargon for the names of these things in general and just maybe used an all purpose adjective like ‘graphic’:

    “‘graphic stories’, ‘graphic books’, ‘graphic essays’, etc.

    “Hmm… maybe I should write up a whole post about this…”

    Yes, please do. Richard Kyle coined the terms “graphic story” and “graphic novel” a long time ago, and now that “graphic novel” has caught on with a broad spectrum of readers, we can either swim with the current or against it. Better to swim with the current, in this case, I think. Or at least, to use the current to get to where *we* want to go, namely, the sea of stories (to push the metaphor). “Autobiographical graphic novel,” “fantasy graphic novel,” “graphic non-fiction,” “graphic biography,” “anthology of graphic stories”–let a million graphic flowers bloom!

    I’d also like someone to see someone write about the derivation of the terms “graphic novel,” “graphic story,” etc., in a way that recognizes their family resemblance and debt to terms like “graphic art,” “graphic illustration,” “graphic design,” etc.

  • Neil, the confusion of the terminology has got me nauseous by now. Only because I’m the bunny they keep calling on here in Australia to explain what it’s all about (see my blog, last couple weeks)
    Today I stumble on this:
    “THE ARRIVAL-by Shaun Tan-Scholastic
    Published by Scholastic and in a format maybe more reminiscent of a children’s book than a graphic novel or comic, it might be easy to overlook this book and leave it off a list like this, but if Eddie Campbell says it’s a graphic novel then that’s good enough for me.”

    As you note, the fact the comic book and graphic novel have become synonymous in too many places just about makes the newer term useless.

    Your words here remind me of something i was explaining to the Brisbane Writer’s festival co-ordinator yesterday:
    “Personally, I think of graphic novels as being print objects “
    Now, I know you didn’t mean it this way (or maybe you did), but i was explaining that in the comic book world a ‘graphic novel’ is an object. Thus, two copies of the same book can be referred to as ‘these two graphic novels’, which seems completely odd to a person from the literary world.

    The ‘object’ thing creates a problem. In books a novel is prose form. thus it’s a novel when it’s in manuscript. It’s a novel when it’s emailed or copied onto a disc. it’s still a novel if it’s serialized in a magazine. The delivery method, or ‘format’ is a separate thing altogether, but in our world ‘graphic novel’ has come to mean eactly a format.

    If we are to interface successfully with the regular book world, we ought to lose this object fetishism.

    But this late in the day I’m more of a feeling that the term ‘graphic novel’ is too corrupted to be retrievable.

  • Neil,
    I think what your seeing is the confusion and merging of the words comics and graphic novels in the mainstream culture. No one was embarrassed about super-heroes, I think in some ways they were more embarrassed about their issues then superheroes. The graphic novel/comic book confusion is probably more just the way society as a whole is beginning to see comics as a whole now

    It’s always weird to work with non-profits and lawyers, they bring a completely different vocabulary and approach to ideas then storytellers or political activists. Success in these cases is twice as hard as usual when doing comics.

    Mark Badger

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