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  • The Graphic Novel: An Introduction by Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey
  • Jessica Whitelaw
THE GRAPHIC NOVEL: AN INTRODUCTION. Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 286 pages. ISBN: 978-1-107-65576-8.

In a ground-breaking and ambitious critical examination of the graphic novel, Baetens and Frey detail the emergence and evolution of this unique medium of storytelling. While the book is divided into three sections addressing 1) the historical context of the graphic novel; 2) its forms; and; 3) its themes, a central and underlying commitment overall is defining and defending the graphic novel as a distinct medium and genre at the intersections of the comics tradition and the literary novel.

Tracing the rise of adult and underground comics during and after an era of moral panic and mass censorship and the subsequent spirit of artistic rebellion post 1950, the authors argue that the lengthier, more reflexive work that became what we now consider the graphic novel, arose out of these contributions with a sense of self-knowing and a playfulness with the purposes of the comic form. They show how the graphic novel today embodies an expansion of comics beyond commercial serialized action and adventure stories aimed at entertaining, toward more diverse and complex forms of graphic narratives.

Despite the comprehensive title, it is important to point out that the volume is concerned with the graphic novel for adults and does not address the medium as children’s literature or as literature for young adults. In framing the graphic novel as an adult genre, the authors’ distinctions between adult and juvenile audiences may raise questions for some readers. Of course, literature for children and youth has undergone its own shape-shifting in the past half a century with the qualities of subversion, experimentation, and serious topics redefining the literary landscape amidst which graphic novels for youth are a part (Coraline, Persepolis, American Born Chinese, and Jane, the Fox, and Me being just a few examples). Another volume will be needed, which conceptualizes this evolution. Readers with an interest in literature for children, to make use of this book, will need to take up the ideas offered here as analytical lenses for examining graphic novels for children and youth.

In the spirit of the pioneering work of McCloud (Understanding Comics, 1993) and Eisner (Comics and Sequential Art, 1985) several decades ago, the middle section of the book provides a conceptual framing and lexicon that will be especially useful to readers interested in the graphic novel from the standpoint of children’s literature. In this section, the authors present a range of theoretical perspectives (including Peeters, Groensteen, Fresnault-Deruelle, and Hatfield) on panel structure, page layouts, drawing, style and word/ image relations, all widely overlooked, under-theorized, and under-addressed aspects of multimodal storytelling. Sequential and non-sequential reading, graphiation, grammatextuality and word/image hybridity are among the concepts illuminated here through rich example and analysis. From the perspective that the medium imposes a set of possibilities as well as impossibilities and that “a story in graphic novel format is more than just a story told in the graphic novel format” (162), this section promises to inform teaching, stimulate conversation and advance scholarship in the particularities of how words, imagery, and design work in unique ways to convey meaning in the graphic novel.

Elsewhere, analysis at the intersection between the graphic novel and the literary novel shows how contemporary graphic novelists “use and rethink” the literary world (196), both identifying as literature and also creatively adapting its form and content. While the examples of crossover between the graphic novel and literary novel leave much to consider and examine in the way of exchanges, interplays, and fusions, these central ideas are at times weighted down by sustained hierarchical comparisons to the literary novel. Given a context that has historically privileged print text over graphic narratives, this stance toward legitimacy may be seen as at odds with the democratizing, crossover and hybrid cultural spaces that the medium grew out of and from which it gains its own unique complexity.

In the end, the authors raise the book’s most provocative questions about the work that...


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pp. 70-71
Launched on MUSE
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