or “What the heck IS a “Graphic Novel”?
I mentioned I was in England for a ‘Graphic Novel’ course, yet whenever I told people this, inevitably they asked, whilst giving me a rather funny look: “Um…so what exactly IS a Graphic Novel?” The more this question came up, the more I realized that the concept of what a ‘Graphic Novel’ is, is still a rather nebulous idea to many. As a result, there are some common misconceptions about what the term ‘Graphic Novel’ means.
Most people when asked, assume that a graphic novel falls into one of the below categories– that it is:
- always just a long comic book
- limited to science fiction or fantasy adventure stories
- ‘graphic’ in the sense of being ‘grotesque, pornographic or violent’
(Note: some graphic novels do fit the above ‘descriptions’, however, ‘Graphic Novels’ as a genre are not limited to the above characteristics)
In fact, the ‘Graphic Novel’ genre is quite broad and encompasses everything from fantasy tales, to memoirs, to historical fiction to biographies. But they are unique in the fact that, unlike traditional ‘books’ which use text as their main medium of telling the story–’Graphic Novels’ (according to Wikipedia)”[use] sequential art in either an experimental design or in a traditional comic stip format” to tell their stories. This differs from books with illustrations (such as The Wizard of Oz or Alice In Wonderland) since in ‘Graphic Novels’ the pictures take precedence over the text of the story–you could not have a graphic novel without the graphics (pictures) themselves. While Alice In Wonderland has gorgeous illustrations, the primary storytelling device is Lewis Carroll’s text–John Tenniel’s engravings merely support what the words already ‘set up.’
Conversely, in graphic novels like Jeff Smith’s Bone, Hannah Berry’s Britten & Brulightly and Posey Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe, the drawings play the hero role while the dialogue is more of a supporting device–you wouldn’t be able to make sense of the narratives of these books without the images. Interestingly enough, Hannah noted in one of our lectures, that there are in fact some graphic novels with little to no words at all–Metronome by ‘Vernique Tanaka’ and The Arrival by Sean Tan. These stories would not have worked as ‘traditional books’ but, as graphic novels with narratives expressed through the use of imagery, they succeed quite well.
Ultimately the wonderful thing about the ‘Graphic Novel’ form comes from its ability to apply to practically any genre–at the retreat, in fact we had several memoirs, some fantasies, and even a biography. Frankly, it is this variety of stories that actually attracted me to graphic novels in the first place…but that’s for another post.