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  • What's in a Name?The Academic Study of Comics and the "Graphic Novel"
  • Catherine Labio (bio)

Comics, funnies, bande dessinée, fumetti, historieta, tebeo, manga, cómic . . . this varied nomenclature gives some indication of the formal complexities of a genre that is both narrative and visual, that first flourished as a form of popular entertainment, that has a global reach, and that is formally and geographically hybrid. "Comics" and "funnies" point to the genre's lowly origins; bande dessinée (drawn strip) stresses its visual and narrative dimensions (single drawings do not count); fumetti (little puffs of smoke, i.e., speech balloons) underscores the deep connection between text and image, including text as image; historieta (little story) emphasizes the narrative aspect of the genre and signals that it is not high literature; tebeo, a derivation from the name of the popular magazine TBO, reminds us that comics owe much to the growth of mass-market periodicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; manga, a term first coined by Katsushika Hokusai in connection with hastily drawn caricatures, tells us that these kinds of images do not belong to the traditions of fine art and calligraphy. Some of these signifiers have also migrated to other languages and acquired additional or separate meanings in the process. When used in a French text, "comics" refers only to North American comics. In Spain, "cómic" is gradually displacing "tebeo" and "historieta," and in Japan, "comic," according to Brigitte Koyama-Richard, now "covers mangas of all kinds."1

A more recent entrant in the semiotic field threatens this complex ecosystem: "graphic novel," an idiom that has been adopted by publishers, translated into many languages, and—my main point of contention—eagerly embraced by anglophone scholars. The move toward this term is evident in such events as the publication of the MLA's Teaching the Graphic Novel (2009) and even in the new layout of the undergraduate library at Yale University: when it reopened in 2007 after extensive renovations, classic and contemporary American, European, and Japanese comics were given pride of place in a "Graphic Novel" section.2 I wish to argue against using "graphic novel" as an umbrella term for a whole genre, while [End Page 123] arguing for the retention of the earlier, makeshift terminology, and for the adoption of a multidisciplinary perspective to the budding field of Comics Studies.

Defining our object of study—comics—is a fraught yet obligatory first step in the process of academic disciplinary formation. I shall deal with this matter in some detail below. A few observations are nonetheless worth stating at the outset. First, comics have traditionally been mass-market products and continue to be so, mutatis mutandis. Second, they can be as short as a handful of panels, or they can be hundreds of pages long. Third, they are a global genre that draws on distinct traditions as well as on an important cross-cultural dissemination machine that features translations, cooperations between publishers and creators, and movie and web adaptations. Fourth, they are a hybrid genre that is both visual and literary, but that generally does not privilege text over image.

Scholars who use the term "graphic novel" to mean an entire genre are running from these basic facts. "Comics" is not a perfect term. (What term would be?) However, no one now thinks of comics as referring only to works created for the funny pages of American newspapers. By being in so many ways utterly inadequate, "comics" has become a generic term. By contrast, the adoption of the label "graphic novel" to denote an entire genre (as opposed to a subset of comics) reflects a sad narrowing of the field to a very small and unrepresentative canon.3 Moreover, the process is doubly hegemonic: geographically, it relegates non-American comics to the background, while academically, it represents a problematic territorial grab by literature scholars.

It is true that defining "comics" or "bande dessinée"—to limit myself to the languages and traditions I know best—has not been easy. Patricia Mainardi, for instance, defines comics as "a single page or series of pages each containing multiple frames of images narrating an original story...