- The Graphic Novel: An Introduction by Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey
As the title suggests, Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey’s The Graphic Novel: An Introduction offers readers an entry point into the history and study of graphic novels. The term has been with us in popular use since the late 70s (with earliest uses dating back to the early 1960s), and, for better or for worse, it has stuck in the popular lexicon. The term came about as a means of distinguishing “comic books,” and their attendant stigma of sub-literate juvenility, from more sophisticated, literary, and adult-oriented works in the same medium. By the early 2000s, “graphic novels” had become an official category in bookstores, at which point it seemed to be permanently, culturally entrenched. Today, the perusal of a graphic novel section in most bookstores will reveal that pretty much any square-bound, long comic book, whether it is a collection of periodical superhero comics or the original publication of a book-length autobiographical comic, will be shelved in that section.
However, the term remains problematic for many. For one, it is misleading: “graphic” has connotations of explicit sex and violence, and “novel” refers to a book-length work of fiction. Many of the most significant and famous graphic novels fall within the nonfiction genres of autobiography, memoir, and history, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, making “novel” technically inappropriate. For another, the term originally came about due to a sense of cultural shame that comic books were for kids. Whereas, today, “Comics Studies” is a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry, and comics are regularly taught alongside traditional literary texts. Therefore, is the stigma that engendered the term “graphic novel” still relevant? Even in comics scholarship, some disagreement exists over whether to use “comics,” “graphic novels,” or the compromise term, “graphic narratives.” For the most part, however, with the advent of Comics Studies, the common academic parlance usually uses “comics” to refer to the overall medium of word-picture combinations in sequence, while the “graphic novel” is a particular format within the medium. In addition, the “comic book” is yet another format within the medium of comics, usually reserved for the periodical or serially published “pamphlet” style that readers traditionally think of when they hear the term.
This brief history and taxonomy help to situate the historical and definitional arguments that Baetens and Frey make in this study. They argue that the “graphic novel” is itself a medium distinct from comics, and one that emerged from the historical context where more sophisticated, literary comics appeared following the watershed year of 1986, when Maus, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns all became [End Page 143] popular cultural phenomena that seemed to break many of the stereotypes associated with comics. However, this distinction between “comics” and “graphic novels” goes against the parlance common to Comics Studies and the publishing industry today. What, then, according to Baetens and Frey, distinguishes the graphic novel from the comic book? Both types, they argue, sit on a spectrum, with each as opposing poles. The authors identify four levels of “key features” that include “form,” “content,” “publication format,” and “production and distribution aspects” (8) which clarify the distinction.
The identification of a spectrum here between comics and graphic novels makes such distinctions murky at best, however, because the authors do not always make clear at what point on the spectrum a work should be considered a comic and when it should be a graphic novel. The distinction made with works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen seems clear enough: these works began as serially published comic books and then became graphic novels once the individual issues were collected and published in a square-bound format. In fact, “publication format” functions as the primary distinction most commonly used in Comics Studies and publishing. In such a case, the content of the works...