I just finished a trio of “graphic novels” and they’ve put a tempest in my teapot again about the term. Despite their Library of Congress subject demarcation as graphic novels the phrase that would best describe these three books are comic book, comic adventure, picture book with pretensions.
[For those worried that I’m talking about Cybils-nominated titles, fear not. But out of some weird desire not to be too negative I will not be listing the titles and authors here. If I do feel compelled to comment I’ll do so in formal reviews at that other blog of mine.]
Yes, this is me once again railing about using “graphic novel” to describe books intended for children and young adults that, to my thinking, fail to earn that title. It has become a hip way to market certain titles with comic book elements that (presumably) elevates them from some lower level of contempt. I don’t know if publishers are consciously aware of this, are parading their ignorance, or simply trying to gild a turd for revenue, but it irks me something fierce when I see inferior quality books heralded by reviewers because they cannot be bothered to see that the emperor is naked.
Just to be clear, what I expect from a graphic novel aimed at children and young adults are the same things I expect from fiction, movies, and any other art that falls under the general category of storytelling. I don’t believe that simply stringing out a weak picture book plot over twice as many pages with five times the number of illustrations is a substitution for quality. I don’t think that a mystery series that goes from point A to point B without an ounce of characterization makes it good just because it appeals to readers. I don’t care how proficient the art is, if you wouldn’t publish the story as a fictive narrative then i see no reason to publish it without demanding the same sort of story revisions authors are asked to perform.
When I pick up a book that uses sequential storytelling as its genre here’s what I look for:
- A main character with a clearly delineated goal or conflict
- Secondary characters with their own, occasionally conflicting, objectives
- A resolution that provides either the main character or the reader with a sense of having gained something from the experience
- A reason why the story needed to be told in a graphic format
You might be surprised at how many “graphic novels” fail to provide many if not most of these points.
For many of the “graphic novels” intended for younger audiences there seems to be this notion that a punchline is good enough, which aligns them closer with a comic strip than a graphic novel. Picture books can often get away with this punchline structure, and I would argue that many of the “graphic novels” that resemble comic strips could be boiled down to much better, funnier, picture books. In some ways, the “graphic novel” becomes proof of flabby writing.
But often the question I’m left asking when I finish a “graphic novel” is: why did someone (or several someones, since publishers and editors are involved) feel this story needed to be told and published in this format? The equivalent is sitting in the theatre after a movie wishing you could have not only your money but those lost two hours of your life back. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve felt this way with “graphic novels” from large publishing houses.
I think moving forward I’m going to attempt to identify “graphic novels” according to the criteria above in my reviews and see if it holds up. It may turn out that I’ll come across a book that fails on most counts but is still satisfying. I can’t think of one off the top of my head – perhaps you can – but maybe by this time next year I’ll have identified a trend or adopt some other set of criteria that works better.
As it stands, here’s hoping for better graphic novels and fewer “graphic novels” in children’s literature in 2011.