Comics, comix, graphic novels or graphic literature?

When I started my dissertation research, I was surprised by the many names used to describe sequential pictorial stories- comics, comix, and graphic novels. Each name is good, and very specific sub-genre, but none really captured the essence of the genre. For example, in general comics and comic books represent the most traditional form- serials designed in a specific comic style filled with super heroes, talking animals, and several other recognizable characters. On the other hand, comix often are edgier in both art and stories, and are often counter-culture.

Graphic novels fall into two categories- one is serial comics with extended stories and complex narratives, and the other, often recognized as graphic novels are often one volume, with more complex narratives that are often personal memoirs, and stories about history, events, and/or society. These are, of course, very general descriptions, and can be argued for one way or the other, but work very well for the purpose of this blog.

Up to now, these titles represent the general categories. Of course there are differences among fans, creators and scholars. For example, there is a an art professor in one art school who states that all pictorial narratives are comics- from the cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain, to Australian Aboriginal paintings, to the Mona Lisa and artists like Van Gough. In a way, he is correct in that these are all image based narrative art. Yet, something about this just does not feel complete. In reflecting on this, I remembered something that I learned a while back, when studying art at UCSC, which is the word “intentionality”. I had an amazing teacher (actually, I had several amazing teachers), who would drill me on the intention of my work. She would quiz me on the meaning as well as what I was doing. Was it a formal, meaning was it exploring some of the formal issues of painting, such as composition, or color, or light and shade? Was it illustrative- telling a story by capturing a moment in time? Identifying and defining the intent is one of critical elements of painting and of art. This is why the notion of defining the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Mona Lisa, Monet’s Water Lilies, or Pollack’s action paintings as “comics” seems to fall short. I somehow think that the artists at Lascaux could have predicted comics, or the Abstract Expressionists of the 50s and 60s would be making comics, especially considering that at that time, comics were generally looked at as base, and without any merit, save for entertaining teen-age boys. I am thankful that this art form developed to the point of acceptance that it is a unique, and powerful media that can be used to express elaborate ideas and narratives, tell meaningful stories, have complex characters in rich relationships (or not), be fiction, or non-fiction, and can be presented in abstract or real ways for multiple audiences. In short, they are just like all other traditional text-based narratives, except that images are all critical components of the story.

Which brings us back to this blog’s title, and what we should call this genre, what it the top-level descriptor. And I discovered the answer last week, when visiting this great bookstore in the Los Feliz neighborhood called Skylight Books. There, in their art and comics annex were two large bookcases filled with comics. One side was labeled “Serial Comics” and had titles published by Marvel, DC and other serial based comics. The label on the other bookcase is “Graphic Literature”, a term that really describes the genre, and includes serials, but really focuses on the unique, innovative, genre-buster stories that are often personal memoirs (such as Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Sacco’s Palestine), history, society, war (Spiegelman’s Maus or Uriarte’s The White Donkey) narratives that explore the medium, such as Nick Sousanis Unflattening, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, or of any of the other genre-bending and/or personal reflections on life, and morality such as Will Eisner’s Contract with God. Graphic literature certainly describes many of my favorite stories, the ones that do not have talking animals (well, except for Maus, or Sfar’s The Rabbi’s cat), or super heroes (although the Monkey King does play an important role in Yang’s American Born Chinese). We can see clearly that the intent of the characters in these examples is different from Superman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think that it is important to remember that there is no judging here, only the recognition that there are different kinds of narratives and that they all fit under the rubric of Graphic Literature.

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