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 short story
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.