Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The trouble with the term graphic novels

I am on a real roll with graphic novels. Right now, I have one about child abuse, one that tells a noirish crime story and one involving the downfall of a superhero. In the past few weeks I have read plenty more. The wide range in styles and subject matter are starting to make the term graphic novel confusing and even meaningless.

When Maus, an allegory of Nazism and prejudice using animals, and other serious books came out, it was obvious that calling a serious book that uses cartoonish drawings, speech bubbles and frames a comic book didn't seem right. So we started calling them graphic novels. As time went on, superhero comics became more serious and were also bound in trade paperback form giving them the look and, often, the heft of the more realistic and literary works.

Now there are as many types of graphic novel as there are novels. This makes recommendations tricky. Saying you might like Shaun Tan's The Arrival, since you enjoyed Ed Brubakers Criminal series is like saying you might like Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Klay because you liked Tim Power's Declare (by the way, this amazing book is somehow out of print. MADNESS). All four are wonderful, and if your tastes are wide enough, you are sure to like them all. The thing is, not everyone's taste is that wide, so saying something is a great graphic novel doesn't help that much.

I suspect that as graphic novels gain more acceptance they will be broken out into categories just as novels are. For now, I will try to explicit about the types of graphic novel I am discussing.

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