[2 June 2009]
At the beginning of March, and coinciding with the film adaptation of Watchmen (DC, 1995). The New York Times inaugurated its “Graphic Books Bestsellers Lists” on the ArtsBeat Blog. The lists, divided into “hardcover”, “softcover”, and “manga”, have been both welcomed – “Hey, The New York Times is noticing comics” – and scrutinized, particularly as to their methodology and categorization. For me, the lists are interesting for the way in which the The New York Times chose to frame this entry into American comics culture by, essentially, coining the term “graphic books” to name the texts eligible for inclusion.
I’m hardly the only person to take note of the neologism used by The New York Times. “Why ‘graphic books’?” is a primary subject of comments posted to the initial set of bestsellers. In response to this question, ArtsBeat author, George Gene Gustines, offers an indirect defense for “graphic books” by noting the problems inherent in any attempt to name what it is we’re talking about when we talk about the texts in question.
As noted in one of the early comments to the blog post, “graphic books” suggests explicit sex and violence, a problem that also attaches to the more common “graphic novel”. On the other hand, the word “novel” implies a certain refinement that “book” does not. In the prose world, “novel” means fiction, and, so arguably, is a term that seems to preclude works like Persepolis (Pantheon, 2004). “Book”, being more general, does not. Nonetheless, “graphic novel” is the secondary term employed in the explanation appended to the lists.
More than one reader of the blog argued for using “comics” or “comic books”, suggesting that other terms are merely cultural cover for people reluctant to admit they like reading such things. Augustine argues in response that the term “comics” at least implies works that are published monthly and in serialized form. From that perspective, the word precludes both longer-form books and collections of serialized stories.
Virtually every attempt to take comics seriously as art or literature has involved some attempt to define terms in a manner that specifies and legitimates the medium for a wider audience. However, how one goes about this task is significant for the manner in which it positions these texts within the wider field of culture.
The mere fact of New York Times bestseller lists for comics is a sign of the wider acceptance of the medium as “real” art and literature. “Graphic books” reads like a phrase intended to negotiate the complicated terms of that acceptance. Even given that the lists are dominated by genre titles, rather than non-fiction and novelistic works like the aforementioned Persepolis or Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese (Square Fish, 2008), The New York Times’ choice of terms seems aimed at the person who sees longer form books as being more “mature” than the periodical pamphlets many Americans identify with childhood.
In my conversations with writers and artists about the proliferation of terms used to describe what they do, words like “graphic novel” are often understood as marketing terms, expressly designed to persuade adults to buy comics. In that sense, it isn’t surprising that the New York Times would adopt a term like “graphic books” for their bestseller lists (indeed, the separation of manga from softcovers also reflects sales realities, namely that the Japanese books would likely dominate any catch-all list of paperbacks). Some creators, however, also see the usefulness for a language that can account for works written, and meant to be read, in long form. It’s worth noting that among writers and artists terms like “cartooning” and “sequential art”, a phrase favored by Will Eisner, are far more common than they are for readers or in bookstores.
In introducing “graphic books” to the critical lexicon, the creators of The New York Times Bestseller Lists seem to have been compelled to simultaneously stand to the side of existing contests over comics, what they are, what they mean, who they are for, and make a statement about the “maturation” of the form.
An alternative strategy, one that takes on the meaning of the words we use directly, is found in the opening chapter to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (HarperPerennial, 1993). McCloud, like The New York Times, is interested in persuading readers to take comics seriously. However, rather than invent a term that draws on the legitimacy of other media, that is, “novels” or “books”, or that otherwise attempts to signify respectability, by, for example, using “graphic” in place of “comic”, McCloud reconsiders the meaning of “comics”, and, indeed, makes the case that how comics are received is at least partly a function of how little thought is given to how they work.
Building on Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (Poorhouse Press, 1985/W.W. Norton, 2008), and after an extended dialogue about what makes comics different from other media in how they are made and read, McCloud ends up with, “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” as a definition for “comics”.
One can argue about the inelegance of this definition, or, as Douglas Wolk does in Reading Comics (Da Capo Press, 2007), its various inclusions or exclusions, but the significance of McCloud’s approach is that it takes comics seriously by, well, taking them seriously. The definition not only employs a sophisticated vocabulary in reference to comics, it opens up a history of “sequential art” that makes modern comics part of an ancient tradition. Rather than accept comics as mere “kids stuff”, McCloud challenges readers to consider comics as art, or, more particularly, as an artistic medium defined by the nature of its form and not by any particular genre, set of tools, materials, or philosophies of practice.
The point isn’t so much that Scott McCloud is right and The New York Times is wrong, but that the meanings of the words in use by both are essentially arbitrary. That “comics” persists in connoting “pulp” and “graphic novels” implies something “literary” is purely a matter of convention, and is not because those are the inherent meanings or implications of the terms.
In that regard, the most notable fact about The Times’ bestsellers lists is not how they are named, but their timing with the theatrical release of Watchmen. The irony here is that as late as the early 20th century, this association would not have done either medium much good in terms of their reception as anything but lowbrow entertainment. However, over time, a common language has been developed for the critical understanding and explanation of film as art. As a result today, for a comic to be turned into a movie is indeed widely considered to be a mark of distinction for the printed work. A comparable language for comics is slowly being hammered out.
Maybe “graphic books” will become an important part of that semantic architecture and maybe it won’t. In either case, the institution of The New York Times sales lists unquestionably represents a significant moment in the repositioning of comics as part of a cultural mainstream in America.