Though I hope this isn’t the first you’ve heard of it, the Cybils Awards were announced today. I am writing this post in advance so I don’t know all of what won in any category except one – Graphic Novels – and I only know that because I was on the judging panel. Yes, again. What can I say, I like graphic novels and have long been a supporter of them as a “legitimate” reading experience for kids.
But instead of talking about the specific finalists and winners I want to talk a little about a different kind of decision being made with regards to graphic novels in the world of children’s publishing, a question of what gets published and why.
I’ve worked in bookstores the better part of the last decade and I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of books for all age kids that liberally get lumped together in the category of “graphic novels.” One of the reigning deans in the field, Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, defines the graphic novel as “a long comic book that needs a bookmark and wants to be reread.” On the surface, this is a fairly inclusive definition and I suspect Spiegelman prefers that inclusion over taut ideological divisions that would perhaps attempt to separate (and forever brand) “good” from “bad.” But there is a sharp divide over the general quality of what is out there and surprisingly a large number of adults who read for children tend to let their guard down because they do not feel qualified to judge graphic novels. I’ve even heard one person suggest that the only person who could judge a good graphic novel from a bad one was another graphic novelist.
Hogwash, I say.
Since we’re talking primarily about books aimed at a young audience here I would counter that it’s just as easy to judge the quality of a graphic novel just as you would a middle grade or young adult novel… or a movie or a TV show or any other storytelling medium. For some, the inclusion of pictures as part of the storytelling seems to stir up some long-buried anxieties over whether or not a drawing style is “good,” whether one can judge based on the idea of artists as somehow more gifted than mere mortals. In truth, wither the book is in a comic panel format (graphic novel), an illustrated story format (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), or a words and picture format (picture books), the same criteria can be employed.
Does the main character have a goal or desire?
Do they face struggled that need to be overcome?
Have they been changed in some way in the process?
Does the reader gain understanding and insight from the narrative, even if the main character doesn’t?
These questions can be answered easily without the aid of a degree in fine art, but far too often I hear of people responding positively to a graphic novel based almost entirely on an emotional response: it was funny, humorous, well-illustrated, beautifully presented. It’s almost like the nervous laughter of literary criticism – if you don’t know how to analyze the story, talk about the pictures!
In the last couple of years I have talked with people about graphic novels showered with praise that I felt would have fallen flat had they been told in a more traditional novel format. In fact, I suspect that editors would have passed on these stories had they not been illustrated as comics. This idea that comics are somehow a leveler of quality, that pictures can make up for weaknesses in narrative, is what I find most troubling. I mean, here we are looking at a great opportunity to bring more young people into the reading fold through graphic novels but we do them a disservice by giving them substandard stories.
Why does this happen? I suspect it’s an editorial situation. If there is a consistency in the division between better and lesser graphic novels that divide is easily (though not universally) a question of publisher. Publishers who specialize in comics and graphic novels are overall much better than those for whom graphic novels are a sideline. First Second, Kitchen Sink, TOON, Oni Press, among others, these publishers tend to get it right, their editorial decisions on what to publish are clearly defined by a house style, a house perspective, and a level of quality that is visible from title to title. Publishers who have, in recent years, jumped on the bandwagon put out novel-length cartoon books that feel like the house is simply out to make a buck. The one exception I’ll note here is Scholastic and their Graphix imprint who seem to have a knack for catching lightning in a bottle.
I am not suggesting that graphic novels be deathly dull or pedantic, or that they take a more literary perspective, but I am asking for fewer of these books I call “cartoons” and more books with actual stories to them. These cartoon books could just as easily be storyboards for shows on the Cartoon Network. They have stock, near stereotypical characters, tired situations straight from old sitcoms, and their resolution either comes in the form a punchline or a tacked-on moral. The narrative arc of these stories is as two-dimensional as the characters who get pushed around inside them, and yet these books have glowing testimonials splashed on their covers from other writers.
So on this holiday dedicated to love, I propose we pause and enjoy books – all books – for what they can give us, and especially to what they can give younger readers. Let’s celebrate the winners of all Awards recently doled out and speak glowingly of the book and its future in all its forms.
Then tomorrow, lets all hunker down to the hard work of asking for publishers, editors, and storytellers alike to make better decisions about the quality of storytelling they produce.