March 2007

Jeff VanderMeer


An Anvil Is Not an Artichoke

For the past few months, I’ve been absorbing the comics and graphic novel scene in a much more systematic way than ever before, and it’s gotten me to thinking about a quite a few issues.

One of the main questions I keep going back to is: Why do many reviewers and people associated with comics feel the need to equate graphic novels and novels when they’re different creatures? This phenomenon is not necessarily found only in the comics subculture. For an example close to home, note the Bookslut guest blogger who called The Wire HBO series her favorite novel of the year. No, The Wire is her favorite television program of the year, although I understand at least one of the points she’s trying to make. In her lexicon, a novel is automatically a superior art form. To love something as much as she loves The Wire is to wish for it the legitimacy that the novel form automatically possesses. The implication is that television usually is a debased form and that the complexity of The Wire must, therefore, be something else. And I think this is one of the reasons some people in the comics field want, sometimes seemingly desperately, to have their works or the work they love compared to “literature.” A sense of wanting to be taken seriously pervades comics as pungently as it pervades the field I come from, fantasy and horror fiction.

However, in equating novels and graphic novels, an essential point about taxonomy is being missed. As soon as a proactive graphic element exists as part of the overall experience of reading and viewing -- a graphic element that isn’t purely illustrative in purpose, i.e., not merely a reaction to a text that does not need art for the integrity of its form -- the experience becomes different from that of reading a novel. It’s almost like calling the sky blue to point this out, but the difference is that when reading a novel, the images, that most central anchor of the reader’s experience -- be they characters, objects, settings, or whatever -- are not immutable. The reader creates those images in his or her mind. That is the essential interconnectivity of the novel -- that the reader must do much more of a particular kind of work, generally, than when viewing a sculpture or a painting or comic. Description in a novel is not a closed system. You can never describe something thoroughly enough for two different readers to create the exact same set of images in their heads. This is a very important distinction -- it speaks to the heart of why we read novels even though we have plenty of visual media to choose from.

Sculptures, paintings, and comics have their own reading or viewing protocols that are just as complex but in their essential nature different. For example, although a novel can play with time and space, it cannot do it in quite the lithe way as a graphic novel or comic. (I can’t, for example, see any way to gracefully replicate Rebecca Dart’s multi-thread panel approach in RabbitHead in novel form.) Graphic novels allow for juxtapositions that would be cumbersome in novel form. They allow for that wonderful confluence of image and word (if words are involved) in which each carries its own very particular weight, with image playing off of word, word playing off of image. The difference between the two forms may not interest the general reader who picks up a graphic novel or novel and just wants to read an entertaining story, and yet that difference still exists, regardless. Neither form is superior to the other, but they are undeniable not the same thing.

Which brings me to one of the bigger news stories in the comics field last year: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (First Second) was a National Book Award finalist in the Young People’s Literature category. Dynamic, direct, and complex, American Born Chinese is a great graphic novel. That kind of quality definitely should be recognized, and many people in the comics field seemed to feel vindicated by its inclusion.

But let’s look at what actually happened in terms of process. A couple of judges, or maybe even three, loved this particular graphic novel. Maybe those judges looked at one or two or even three dozen other graphic novels, but at best I can’t imagine they performed anything other than a random, ad hoc analysis of the best work coming out of the graphic novel field in reaching their assessment.

Worse, the judges didn’t nominate any graphic novels in the adult category. Does this mean that there wasn’t a single adult graphic novel the match of the best adult novels published in 2006? Absolutely not. What it means is that no systematic review occurred because such a review was outside of the judges’ brief with regard to the categories. The National Book Award is set up to reward fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc. That a judge or two or even three managed to shoehorn American Born Chinese into a finalist slot in one category means only that, in 2006, American Born Chinese was shoehorned into a finalist slot in the young adult category. Which is to say, the phenomenon is like snow in Tallahassee, Florida, where I live: it occurs about every decade for a few minutes, and then it’s gone again until the next random occurrence. That’s not a milestone. That’s not a sign of graphic novels being taken seriously. That’s the subjective interpretation of a category that was not meant to contain graphic novels.

If the National Book Award wants to be inclusive of graphic novels, it should create a separate category and acknowledge the art form as a vibrant and unique creative endeavor. Then, too, you would see systematic discussion and consideration of all graphic novels in the context of the award, not just one or two bright baubles alighted upon by some magpie of a judge.

I’m not one of those cultural elitists outraged that a graphic novel was named a finalist in a novel category. As should be clear, I love graphic novels and I love novels. But every art form must reach its maturity and find its respect by understanding and celebrating that which makes it unique, not by stressing similarities by association or by touting ad hoc exceptions. (For this reason, I love the fact that a large publishing company thinks comics are important enough to do a Best American Comics series, or that Yale University Press would want to do editor Ivan Brunetti’s survey of comics in a handsome hardcover.)
Put another way, can you imagine a novel being a finalist for the Eisner Award? Absurd, right? And why? Because a novel is a not a comic, is not a graphic novel, in the same way that an artichoke is not a pear, and a pear is not an ostrich, and an ostrich is not an anvil.

Nor would any sane soul want their pear to be an ostrich. Nor think less of either for being pear not ostrich, ostrich not pear.

Next Time

The April column will feature reviews of a few interesting titles from Top Shelf, among others.

Contact Info

Send complaints, compliments, concerns, and rambling rants about how wrong I am to: vanderworld at (I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in this column if you send me something.)

Send materials for review to Bookslut and to me at POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.