- On Comics-Style Picture Books and Picture-Bookish Comics
Why might we choose to classify a pictorial narrative as a picture book, a comic, or a graphic novel—and do such distinctions keep Shaun Tan or Brian Selznick awake nights? What essential qualities must a pictorial text have to enable its recognition as a picture book and as likely material for young readers? Why make the picture book central to a comics discussion, when many other venues for young readers (magazines, the Web, middle-grade graphic novels, manga compilations) feature comics? Exploring even these sample questions unearths myriad historical and cultural shifts in picture books and graphic narrative, and maps enough fertile interdisciplinary ground to keep children's literature and visual studies scholars busy for the foreseeable future. Although picture books are often treated as known quantities, hailed as timeless and implied to be unchanging, surveying them through a contemporary comics lens reveals diverse approaches to visual/verbal narrative and to childhood itself. What follows reveals a paradox: while we may find much more than common ground between the two genres—indeed, formally one may be said to be a subset of the other—strong philosophical and ideological reasons persist for their separation.
I contend that picture books are graphic narratives that operate in a medium known as comics (plural form), even though a picture book is not always a comic (singular). At the risk of splitting hairs, I want to concentrate for a moment on the distinction between comics (plural) and a comic (singular). I am inclined to side with Hillary Chute, who writes, "I treat comics as a medium—not as a lowbrow genre, which is how it is usually understood" ("Comics as Literature?" 452). Chute hopes to rescue comics from "lowbrow" status, and we might wish the same for picture books, whose reputation for cuteness and didacticism can cancel out their rich signifying potential. Picture books, pitched to a preliterate audience and often associated with functional literacy, may seem unworthy of [End Page 468] literary or art-historical scrutiny, just as comics maintain an association with adolescent sensation. Chute demands scrutiny of work that past scholars and popular critics have deemed trivial or intellectually suspect.
Yet Chute's appealing (re)definition does not quite enable a confident distinction between comics-as-medium—a way of thinking that enables diverse aesthetic, historical, and political readings—and comics as an imprecise term attached to a particular instance such as a comic strip or a superhero comic book. If we accept comics as a medium like television or the Internet, then texts that are by no means comic books (e.g., picture books, photoessays, concrete and kinetic poetry, etc.) may be evaluated through comics conventions. After all, the word comics covers much of what picture books do in their interdependent word-and-picture sequences. Like comic books and graphic novels and so on, picture books have complex meanings that emerge from the interaction of their verbal/visual form and content along with the material signification of their trim sizes, typical page counts, and fabrication. Picture books—ranging from tiny, didactic sets like Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library to extra-large-format texts like Jean-Luc Fromental and Joëlle Jolivet's 365 Penguins—are potent commodities as well as imaginative works of art, diverse in literary approaches and artistic styles. Of course, picture books logically belong to a spectrum of children's books, too, and so may be studied from non-comics standpoints as fiction, nonfiction, informational, and so on. By comparison, Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? is a memoir, and Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is journalism, while deriving substantial meaning from the comics medium.
Picture books do have in common a (usually) consistent blend of words and pictures across a multipage sequence, and this verbal-visual conjunction is a comics convention as well. Chute defines the comics medium "as a hybrid word-and-image form in which two narrative tracks, one verbal and one visual, register temporality spatially. . . . [A] reader of comics not only fills in the gaps between panels but also works with...