Jonathan R. Aubin
This unit deals with several different types of graphic sequential narratives, commonly known as "comics," but is concerned primarily with the art of the graphic novel. Let's begin by defining the graphic novel by what it is not. First, the graphic novel is not a comic book. Wait, you thought the term "graphic novel" was just a fancy term made up by the publishing industry to make it acceptable for adults to read book–length comic books? Au contraire, mon frere. Graphic novels are a distinct genre, and they're with us to stay. Yes, graphic novels and comic books have a lot in common—sequential illustrated panels that follow a narrative—words and pictures, right? It's the "comic" piece of the moniker "comic book" to which this writer takes offence. A comic book must deal with subject matter and themes that are not to be taken seriously by definition (this doesn't stop legions of comics fans from doing so regardless). This helps explain why so many great graphic novels are neglected as serious literature. They have been relegated to the same section of your local bookstore that houses such distinguished works as
Aunt Mabel's Bathroom Reader
101 Naughty Cats
. The graphic novelist must overcome the reader's biases and misperceptions of her graphic novel before she has written her first panel. A graphic novel is neither a cartoon nor a comic book, though it employs elements of both; most graphic novels have nothing comic about them. A graphic novel is a work of visual art first, and a novel second. A graphic novel is not a novel. Novels do not contain pictures, otherwise they are considered illustrated novels. Graphic novels are not illustrated novels. Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against illustrated novels. Sherman Alexie's illustrated novel,
The Absolutely True Diaries
of a Part–Time Indian
is a cornerstone text for this unit.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
also comes to mind as a popular example of the form. But neither of these are graphic novels.
So what are graphic novels, then? They are comic books built on a human scale. They are comic books without the comic book characters and superheroes that have become ubiquitous in pop culture. A graphic novel must deal with recognizable human characters (or their anthropomorphized stand–ins) that deal with human conflicts, and take place in a world that, more or less, resembles our own. The characters in a graphic novel can only have a superpower if it acts as a visual metaphor as in, for example, Dan Clowes'
The Death Ray
, whose protagonist discovers a weapon that gives him the ability to make people disappear completely. I can already think of about dozen exceptions to my own rule, such as Anders Nilsen's excellent
, which views human events through the points of view of its animal characters or the Frank comics of Jim Woodring, wordless fables that take place in a universe that defies description, so I'll shut up now.