“Comics” needs less nouns and more adjectives

In the comments of a previous post, I started riffing about the different uses of the terms “graphic novel” and “comics”, and what might be a better terminology. It seems like people are constantly looking for that upgrade in terms so “comics” won’t be looked at disparagingly. But, as I discussed in this essay, just giving a new term won’t necessarily solve the problems — what you really need is a whole new network of associations that is brought about by the new term.

We kind of have this with “graphic novel.” For some, it insinuates something different than “comics” — it’s long-form, non-pamphlet, non-mainstream genre of a serious topic, etc. It evokes a different subculture and literary movement.

But, for others, its just an upscale synonym for “comics”, and many who see that status difference want to capitalize on it by bootstrapping “comics” into it. Companies like Marvel and DC don’t give a damn about the alternative movement of “graphic novels”, but they do see the term as a way in which they can give their products a respectable label. (and, I’d guess, this is the way that most outside the comics community view it)

As I’ve said before, I see “comics” and “graphic novels” both as simply social contexts in which a “visual language” (of sequential images) is written. This visual language is used in different avenues, the same way that we use English to write “articles” versus “novels” — such is the (potential) difference between “graphic novel” and “comics.”

However, I think perhaps this whole terminology game has been played wrongly. If you want to get across this different viewpoint — which truly does give an alternative network of ideas — then what we don’t need is an alternative term to talk about different works of “sequential images.” Any time that a new term is created it will just be a synonym for “comics” with a little different flavor, be it graphic novels, comix, sequart, or strip lit.

Really what we need is not a noun, but an all purpose adjective. And, I think that adjective should be common parlance — not something new that is made up. Personally, I like “graphic”, since this visual language is inherently graphic representation. So, while “graphic novels” might stand, instead of “comics”, etc. you get:

Graphic books
Graphic stories
Graphic essays
Graphic fiction
Graphic non-fiction
Graphic humor
Graphic short story
Graphic short

Rather than trying to identify both medium and form wrapped up into one term (and thus also subculture, etc), you just get an overarching description of the manner in which that form is written (graphically, instead of just text). Not only does this fix the terminology issues, but it also puts these things on equal footing to text. It’s not “comics” vs. “books”: “graphic books” are just another type of book.

Edit: As noted by Eddie Campbell in the comments… this view well meshes with the use of “author” as the person creating this “graphic book.” There’s really no need to use some separate term like “cartooonist,” especially if, as many have said, really all we’re doing is “writing in pictures.” The less sepratism we have in our vocabulary, the more integrated this visual language will become in society.


  • Neil,
    While I was in the neighborhood i read back over your recent posts. ‘author’, which you recommend, is a word I started using recently to describe myself. Did you see the post i wrote some time back about the ‘authorial illustration’ course in the Uk. ? those chaps see the graphic novel as but one type of ‘authorial illustration’. I found the notion very useful in helping my brain break away from the concept of ‘comics’, which i feel has become an aesthetically regressive idea altogether. it’s time to see what the pictorial language that the medium developed can contribute to a much bigger picture, and in so doing, cease to be an autonomous form. This was in my head when i ‘wrote’ the Fate of the Artist, and when one reviewer described it as ‘not a graphic novel per se’ I felt satisfied.
    then i coined the catchphrase ‘It’s not a graphic novel, percy”.

  • Thanks for all the comments Eddie. I’ve been reading a bunch of your posts too, and greatly enjoy your commentary on this whole terminological debacle!

    Perhaps the real movement needs to be a liberation of the visual language from the formats and genres on the whole?

  • Intelligent reviewers have already shown themselves to be perfectly willing and able to make the sort of fine distinctions hinted at by your list of graphic possibilities, Neil.

    Here’s an example from a Kirkus Reviews Special, Spring & Summer Preview:

    “Fun Home is a finely etched graphic memoir seven years in the making. . . The result is a time-shifting flow of sharply detailed scenes echoing the (heavily referenced) kaleidoscopic memory-strands of Proust and Joyce, a shared love for whom builds a bridge between father and daughter” (emphasis added).

    And here’s another example, from a 2005 New York Times review of David B.’s Epileptic, in which the reviewer, Rick Moody, takes pleasure in making even finer distinctions; following a short discussion of the rise of the graphic novel, Moody writes:

    “Just as the European novel has a different set of concerns from its American relations, so does David B.’s story have preoccupations we might not ordinarily find in a graphic novel. Well, for one, it’s not a novel at all, but a memoir.

    “Historians of the graphic form will observe that Spiegelman, Sacco and others (one stunning example is the recent prose/graphic hybrid ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ by Phoebe Gloeckner) have all experimented with autobiography in their work, but in the case of ‘Epileptic’ the autobiographical impulse has, in my view, more to do with what’s happening in French writing these days, namely l’autofiction. If, against the advice of conservatives, you should travel to the Paris of 2005, you would find that the traditional roman à clef of French literature has lately given way to a cottage industry of remorselessly literary accounts of the intimate lives of French nationals. David B.’s story, in broad outline, is about the desperate attempts of his family to deal with his older brother’s chronic epilepsy; it is consonant with the confessional literary impulse in French letters, but as befits the graphic genre, it also takes liberties with the form. The young narrator, Pierre-François, for example, is obsessed with military history, and therefore the particulars of his brother’s story are interwoven with the young artist’s myriad imaginings of the invasions of the Mongols, his grandfather’s experiences in World War I, and tales of the Algerian war and the French Resistance.

    “Moreover, because David B.’s brother, Jean-Christophe, began to experience the symptoms of his seizure disorder in the late 60’s, the family made use of the alternative therapies of the time. So there are sad and hilarious passages in ‘Epileptic’ about the macrobiotic communes of France. (‘Soon, the entire commune is running entirely on guilt. The society we left behind has recreated itself. We have a macrobiotic cook, macrobiotic judges, macrobiotic cops.’) David’s parents also consult the Rosicrucians. (‘It’s awesome. My brother, my sister and I are part of a secret society. Each one of us is given a grade.’) They also experiment briefly with alchemy. All in pursuit of relief for their afflicted son.

    “In short, ‘Epileptic’ constitutes something new: a graphic intellectual history. A design-oriented history of ideas. There are entire dreams illustrated here in a disturbing and rococo illustrative style, with interpretations included, as if David B. were channeling Jung’s ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ or Freud’s writings on the oneiric. There are allusions to May 1968 and the role of the French intellectual in contemporary Gallic life, and there are ghosts in profusion, ghosts of Europe past. These include the ghost of the author’s grandfather, a man of somewhat dubious ideas, depicted so he resembles one of those beaked denizens of hell you find in Hieronymus Bosch” (emphasis added).

    Before the rise of the graphic novel, literary types paid only sporadic and, more often than not, superficial, attention to comic books. But now that they’re paying attention, and I mean really paying attention, they’re not just following the usage of the term “graphic novel” that certain know-nothing publishers/promoters are trying to foist upon them; rather, they know very well what novels are, and they can see for themselves how any given “book-length comic book” does or does not measure up.

  • Here’s another example of a reviewer boldly going beyond the publisher promotion:


    He were a right bonny lad, that Mad Hatter

    Lewis Carroll’s debt to the north east is writ large in the wise and witty graphic book, Alice in Sunderland

    Rachel Cooke
    Sunday April 1, 2007
    The Observer

    I have been thinking about what I am going to say in this piece for days, and yet still I don’t quite know how to put it. The truth is that the book I want to tell you about is rather difficult to describe. Its publisher, Jonathan Cape, is calling it a graphic novel. Well, it is certainly a picture book, but a novel? No. It’s a history book, really, though that makes it sound too dull – and a detective story, too. But it also contains polemic, elements of fantasy, autobiography and literary theory. Then there are the old music-hall turns, the homages, the jokes.

    Oh, stuff it. What I’m trying to say is that Alice in Sunderland, in which graphic novelist Bryan Talbot suggests that Lewis Carroll’s greatest source of inspiration was the gritty north east (and not, as most people think, rarefied Oxford, where he was famously a don), is one of the most exhilarating books I’ve read in years. It’s a minor masterpiece.


  • Thinking about the various “graphic” variations “endorsed” by publishers–The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon came to mind, among others–I decided to search Amazon for the phrase “graphic novella.” Here’s a sample of the results:

    Jetlag: Five Graphic Novellas by Batia Kolton and Actus Comics

    The Dreamer: A Graphic Novella Set during the Dawn of Comic Books by Will Eisner

    Mort Grim: A Graphic Novella by Doug Fraser

    The Actus Box: Five Graphic Novellas by Actus (Tragicus)

    Ninety Candles: A Graphic Novella by Neil Kleid

    Medusa’s Daughter: A Graphic Novella by Jonathon Scott Fuqua and Steven Parke

    Though it’s nowhere near as popular as “graphic novel,” “graphic novella” turns out, already, to be more popular among publishers (and authors, who may actually be the ones pushing for the change) than one might have guessed. Now how about “graphic memoir”:

    Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir by Aline Kominsky Crumb

    We Are on Our Own: A Memoir by Miriam Katin. The publisher’s copy on the back cover begins as follows: “In this captivating and elegantly illustrated graphic memoir…”

    Okay, so the term “graphic memoir” seems, so far, to be rather less popular among publishers than the term “graphic novella.” (A Google search reveals, however, that among reviewers, the term “graphic memoir” has pretty much become common parlance.)

    What’s the point of this exercise? The point is, there’s clear evidence that intelligent publishers are perceptibly moving away from the all-purpose use of “graphic novel” to describe the graphic works they publish.

    Oops, here’s another “graphic” variation (I’m mainly concentrating in this post on the titles and subtitles of published books, in case you haven’t noticed):

    To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue by Ted Rall

    Baraka and Black Magic in Morocco: A Graphic Travelogue by Rick Smith

    And so on.

  • I’m thrilled to hear some publishers are using it this way, but I’d be more happy to start hearing it as common parlance. I think far more people want to jump on the “graphic novel” bandwagon than dissolve their language in such a way, and the buzzwordiness is hard to combat.

    Also, while I welcome the comments no matter what the source, I think they might be appreciated further if the source wasn’t veiled in anonymity?

  • Note that the reason i wrote the ‘graphic novelist’s manifesto’ was because I thought it was a bad idea to split hairs when what is needed is united front. Giving the media the message that it’s necessary to differentiate between ‘graphic novel’ and ‘graphic memoir” is unproductive. I once observed an argument over Speigelman’s Maus, that it should be graphic autobiography instead of graphic novel. Hey, he drew himself as a wee mousie. it’s fiction.

    letting the oustside media see us arguing over such nonsense is bad

  • I think I agree. Unless I’m mistaken, differentiating between “graphic novel” and “graphic novel” takes on largely the same flavor as GN versus “comic”, right?

    The trouble with those, is that it instantiates each of them as a competing buzzword. If the united front for a “buzzword” is simply an adjective, it can be used to describe any number of things without them competing.

    What’s the difference between a “graphic book” and a “graphic memoir”? Nothing really. Just that one term denotes the format and the other the genre.

  • “What’s the difference between a ‘graphic book’ and a ‘graphic memoir’? Nothing really. Just that one term denotes the format and the other the genre.”
    Not sure I understand what you’re getting at here, Neil. Graphic book is the general term, so, yes, it will encompass graphic novels, graphic memoirs, graphic intellectual histories, and so on. “Book” tells you what the format is. Modify “book” with “graphic” and now one knows what medium the author used to create the book. Before the rise of “book-length comic books,” if one had called a book a “memoir” or a “novel,” one would have known the format, medium, and genre; and that’s still the case, for most readers. Now, call a book a “graphic memoir” or a “graphic novel,” and one knows, again, the format, medium, and genre. Doesn’t matter to me if some people use the term “graphic novel” as a synonym for comics. I know what I mean when I say “graphic novel”–generally speaking, I mean a long fiction in the graphic medium–and if others don’t get my meaning, I can easily explain it to them. And I’m not alone, as I pointed out. Lots of people already refuse to use “graphic novel” as a synonym for comics; they’re already on my side, and they’re already out there, explaining the difference between “graphic novels,” “graphic memoirs,” “graphic intellectual histories,” and so on. I wouldn’t say I want people to get behind “graphic novels”; what I’d say instead is that I want people to support excellence in the graphic medium, to support first-rate graphic storytelling in whatever genre it appears.

  • Just went back and re-read your last message, Neil. Am I wrong to think that we’re basically in agreement here? If so, well, I’m not sure why I didn’t see it right away, but I didn’t. Sorry.

  • I believe that we are in agreement, yes.

    To summarize again: I was just trying to make the point that it would be better NOT to have a collection of buzzwords, but instead to have a consistent descriptor to apply to any existing format/genre/etc. that we want.

  • I appreciate all of this discussion as well as the chance to read the Kirkus Review of EPILEPTIC, but I think, in terms of terms, the term that will stick will be the term that sticks.

    It’s like the name “novel” itself –you hear it and you know the basic parameters of the thing from having encountered countless examples but the word itself is not really descriptive of the thing. And novelists themselves are constantly experimenting and “taking liberties with the form” (as the reviewer says of David B) So novel is a blanket term.

    “Comic” is likewise a historical name rather than an accurate one. It’s not just that people know what you mean when you use it, noncartoonists mean all manner of things when they use it.

    I understand that there are definite PR concerns surrounding this issue but I think the more really good work is produced the less producers will have to worry about the associations their terms are pulling up for people.

    Once it was the novel that was the new genre on the block and for a long time it was disparaged as not a thing for grown-ups to read. Even the term “literature” was once an insult — James Joyce had the Stephen in STEPHEN HERO comment that “The term ‘literature’ now seemed to him a term of contempt and he used it to designate the vast middle region which lies between apex and base, between poetry and the chaos of unremembered writing.”

    That’s not to say I don’t have my own preference, just that I don’t think it’s gonna matter. If I were doing the choosing, I would choose Topffer’s own “Picture Story.” It’s unassuming and distinctly descriptive.

  • “I believe that we are in agreement, yes.”

    Okay, good.

    “To summarize again: I was just trying to make the point that it would be better NOT to have a collection of buzzwords, but instead to have a consistent descriptor to apply to any existing format/genre/etc. that we want.”

    That’s an excellent summary. I agree with you completely.

    To kerry: the quotation I posted about Epileptic was an excerpt from a New York Times review of the book. Here’s the (shortened) URL if you’re interested in reading the quotation in context:


    If this blog doesn’t convert the URL to a live link, you can simply copy and paste it into the address field of your Web browser.

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