I am, again, a Cybils judge in the graphic novel category this year. As I write this my fellow judges and I are just finishing up with our reading and will shortly begin the process of choosing a winning title from among the finalists. In my experience reviewing graphic novels I have come across a number of people – smart people who are very good at analyzing literature, mind you – who wonder how I can tell a good graphic novel from a bad one. What makes a good graphic novel different, they might ask, than a comic? The assumption that comics are automatically of a lower quality I get, because it’s similar to the artificial classification between literature and what some call junk fiction (i.e. genre fiction).
I’m not looking to pick at the worry-wound that is the divide between high and low art, but I have been thinking about the choices I am about to make as a “judge” and feel like exploring this a bit.
I used to teach Art and English to middle school kids a few lifetimes ago. One of things people always asked (and sometimes still do) is “How can you grade Art? It’s such a subjective thing.” The fallacy of this line of thinking is that people confuse the mechanics of creating something with the arbitrary notion of “art.” In publishing this sometimes shows up as a question of whether or not something has “literary merit” as opposed to just being a good story. But these labels and qualifications have nothing to do with the creation and execution of these works. I don’t have to like every great work of art or literature, but I can still respect the quality of the effort that was put into them.
So getting back to grading middle school art students (and how this fits in with judging graphic novels) what I used to tell my students was that every blank sheet of paper, or canvas, or pile of ingredients had the potential to be anything, to be great. Because of this, every project had the potential to be an A, and that’s where every project grade began. From there each project had a set of criteria it had to meet, concrete deadlines or specific instructions to be followed, and how well those were addressed would whittle away or support that A grade. And because my students were often resistant to projects before they began them, I found it easier to make my criterium deceptively simple.
- Was the work completed on time?
- Did you use class time well?
- Did you follow the directions I provided?
- Is this honestly your best effort?
- Did you sign your final project?
Removing the stress of whether or not I would think their work was “good” from the grading equation allowed them to focus on the more important aspect of the project: paying attention to the details and putting forth a best effort to come to a creative solution to the problem. Remove good and bad and that internal voice of judgment gave them the confidence to be creative without worrying what anyone else thought. And when the projects were finished and we held in-class critiques the kids would call each other out on the criteria and not based on whether or not they liked the finished project. When you hear one student tell another “Oh, no, you did not put your best effort into this, because I saw you goofing off!” even the issue of grading becomes secondary.
This applies to any creative endeavor, writing certainly can be appreciated for its quality even when the subject or style bores or distracts, and with graphic novels it comes in handy when deciding between two different titles with different styles and subjects. Story quality counts, certainly, but with sequential storytelling the visual elements also have to be taken into account. Like a picture book the word and images need to work together, and by working together I don’t mean that the style of the art must reflect the nature of the story, though this can’t hurt. In the end it might seem like my criteria is arbitrary, but all judgments are personal so these criteria exist as a way of establishing a set of groundings beyond the old “gut feeling.” These are some of the things I look for in a graphic novel
- Is there a satisfying narrative arc from beginning to end?
- Does the art contribute meaning to the story that is not otherwise expressed in the words?
- Is there imagery or symbolism incorporated, and if so, is it unique or relevant?
- Could this story have only been told in this format?
- Would this story be as interesting if it were told as a traditional fiction narrative?
With the idea that every unread book has the potential to be great, after reading a graphic novel I find that I can better understand what did or didn’t “work” for me by using the criteria above. It isn’t an absolute guide, but in cases where I am having a difficult time articulating whether I liked a graphic novel, or why I liked it, these can be helpful.
The quality of the art isn’t mentioned above but that’s because it’s a secondary or parallel issue for me. I don’t care how beautiful the artwork for a graphic novel is, if the story is boring or weak or reprehensibly clichéd, then the book is a failure for me. Gild a turd any way you want, it’s still a turd. Tell me a story I’ve read a thousand before, but give me a unique visual or some clever symbolism to hold onto, and you’ve got my attention. I’ve read mini comix that employed stick figures with more humor and insight than all the Hollywood comedies put out last year. The rudimentary art didn’t bring down the quality of the comic any more than a huge Hollywood budget is a guarantee of art.
If past is prologue, I predict that somewhere in the midst of Cybils judging I’m going to have to compromise. It never fails, my first choice picks almost never get chosen by the group as a winner. That’s okay because the process is a little more like the Supreme Court laying down a ruling rather than a jury delivering a unanimous decision. There will always be splits and divides, and that’s okay because in the end, no matter what committee confers whatever award, or what one critic or reviewer says about any particular books, one simple rule should take precedent over all others for readers:
Read everything and judge for yourself.