- Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics by Paul Williams
Comics scholars, and particularly comics historians, have long been vexed by the term “graphic novel,” a descriptor that carries with it so much baggage that some scholars reject its use, while others attempt to tame it by heavily caveating their invocations of the term. The last few years have seen a range of books that have tried to set things straight, establishing histories and genealogies of artists and works that led to what we now consider a stable publishing form, the graphic novel: to name a few, these have included From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels (2013), edited by Daniel Stein and Jan-Noël Thon; The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (2015), by Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey; and The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel (2018), edited by Baetens, Frey, and Stephen Tabachnick. [End Page 357]
Paul Williams enters the fray with Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics (2020), an attempt to turn our attention to the social and rhetorical world of comics fans, creators, and publishers during what he refers to as “the long 1970s,” the period from 1964 to 1980 or so in which the term “graphic novel” arose and became a viable concept in the minds of those in the American comics scene (2). This framing, essentially a sociology of the comics community in a confined period, enables one of the deepest dives into a specific moment in comics that I’ve encountered, and allows Williams to mostly sidestep the long history of earlier developments in the medium, stretching at least back to the nineteenth century, that preceded and enabled the publishing form we call the “graphic novel.” As Williams puts it, “Dreaming the Graphic Novel points toward a new way of doing graphic novel history [. . .] in this book, the differing uses of texts—private and public, social, political, and economic—are as much a part of graphic novel history as the succession of ‘Great Men’ and ‘Great Works’ populating existent [sic] histories of the form” (12).
Dreaming the Graphic Novel is structured as a series of (sometimes overlapping) explorations of a set of intuitive questions about long-form comics in the long 1970s: “How were comics conceived of as novels? How were length and physical format important to those conceptions? What kind of prose novels were invoked as models and why? How dominant was the term graphic novel? And what was at stake in arguing that comics were literary texts?” (2). To tease out responses to these questions, Williams mostly limits his approach to “conversations between comics-world stakeholders during the long 1970s, whether they took place in an office corridor, a convention center, a fan-zine, or a comic’s letter page” to show “how various stakeholders in the comics world thought that turning comics into novels was necessary to raise the esteem with which the medium was held in the wider culture” (2, 14).
That exploration, the “dreaming” of what long-form comics could be in the minds of those in the 1970s comics scene, occupies the bulk of the book, teased out over six main chapters. The first two of these establish the world of 1960s and 1970s comics publishing, including a potted history of the birth of the direct market, followed by a look at the potential promise of Franco-Belgian graphic albums as models for American comic-book evolution. The third and fourth chapters put Williams’ mastery of his archive on full display, quantifying how many book-length comics were published from 1966 to 1980, the impact of traditional book publishers on their production, the impulse of creators to imagine longer comics (especially in the underground scene), and, most significantly, the shifting terms in play for long-form comics, showing for example that “graphic story” nearly won out in the early 1970s before being supplanted late in the game by “graphic novel” (104). The fifth and sixth chapters primarily examine issues of “novelization” as a bid to earn comics prestige and eventually canonization, and...