“We like it here in the gutter”: graphic novel, comic, sequential art, other?

Here at Central Library, we tend to use the term "graphic novels," but NPR's Glen Weldon wants us to know that we can call them like we see them. No, no superheroes necessary, and intellectual merit is beside the point --- they're comics!!


The terms "graphic novel" and "sequential art" have long been employed to lend the once-pulpy form some legitimacy. As Weldon writes,

The reason Eisner latched onto the term "graphic novel" and ran with it is because ... well, it was 1978. He needed to. Comics were considered, if they were considered at all, 'junk culture.' Kid stuff that was beneath serious notice, if not beneath contempt.

... He wanted to draw a clear line between what he was doing and mainstream superhero smash-em-ups — as well as the head-shop alt-comics scene of R. Crumb and others.

"Graphic novel" was a serviceable term for what he was up to, but even then, at the very beginning, it wasn't a perfect fit. A Contract With God isn't truly a novel, after all, it's a story collection. But he sought legitimacy, or at least serious consideration, so he adopted the terms of art of the literary community.

With this highbrow/lowbrow shorthand on deck, Graphic Novels Proper (let's stick our noses up a little higher in the air, shall we?) have gone on to receive numerous awards and nominations, among them Maus (Pulitzer Prize, 1992); American Born ChineseStitches, and Nimona (National Book Award finalists in 2006, 2009, and 2015, respectively); Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (also a 2015 NBA finalist); and just this month, March (a National Book Award winner!). Weldon mentions some other well-received greats of the Graphic Novel persuasion, too: PersepolisJimmy CorriganGhost World (plus Eisner's great manifesto on the topic, Comics and Sequential Art). But... does the term really suit these titles? Especially since a good 50% aren't even fictional, per se, and therefore not actually "novels" at all?

Back to Weldon:

Just call them comics. And by doing so, you'll be joining the ranks of creators like Neil Gaiman, who have always been amused by the pernicious desire on the part of book marketers and awards panels to dress comics up in pretentious language.

I always loved, most of all with doing comics, the fact that I knew I was in the gutter. I kind of miss that, even these days, whenever people come up and inform me, oh, you do graphic novels. No. I wrote comic books, for heaven's sake. They're creepy and I was down in the gutter and you despised me. "No, no, we love you! We want to give you awards! You write graphic novels!"

We like it here in the gutter.

So. Either this is an honest call to keep comics "creepy" -- a reclaiming of the term à la "queer" or "Obamacare" -- or just another jog on the euphemism/dysphemism treadmill. Only time will tell. (During which I hope we can read them and enjoy them without too much label anxiety!)

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