Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Intellectually Subnormal People

Alan Moore: I think there were a surprising number of people out there who secretly longed to keep up with the adventures of Green Lantern but who felt they would have been socially ostracized if they had been seen reading a comic book in a public place.
With the advent of books like Watchmen, I think these people were given license by the term graphic novel. Everybody knew that comics were for children and for intellectually subnormal people, whereas graphic novel sounds like a much more sophisticated proposition.
Comic Book Comics #5
by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey


What's in a name? I'm sure we all know the answer to that: quite a lot. Here, Alan Moore is quoted talking about his and Dave Gibbons' masterpiece Watchmen and how it went a long way in making comic books culturally, and maybe even socially, acceptable. Although, that was tied into marketers referring to Watchmen as a "graphic novel" instead of a "comic book." The recent movie adaptation made sure to claim it was based on a graphic novel instead of a comic book.

So what's the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel? Page count. Binding. That's really about it. Some think content is inherently different between the two. Graphic novels are supposed to be more adult and sophisticated while comic books are just silly superheroes in tights.

Content does not define the medium. That would be like saying movies are only dramatic stories. But we all know comedies, thrillers, horrors, and countless other genres are made into movies. Likewise, all kinds of stories can be, and are, told in the comic book format.

Sadly, for several reasons in American history, mainstream comics became stagnate in exploring a singular genre, namely superheroes. In recent decades the industry has taken many steps in breaking out from that genre and telling other sorts of stories. But the name "comic book" still carries with it a social stigma, so "graphic novel" is used in an attempt to assert an air of legitimacy.

However, I see very little, if any, supposed difference in the formats. I do still see problems with both names. Comic book assumes a genre, namely humor, or comedic. This is understandable since the format got its start in the newspaper comic strips. Trust me, though, there are many comics out there that are far from funny. Graphic novel likewise assumes a genre, the novel, and that's where I mainly take issue with it. Comic Book Comics is a nonfiction historical account of the comic industry. While it does have its humorous moments, I wouldn't categorize it as a comedy. Nor would I categorize the complete, collected series as a novel.

The first book to popularize the term of graphic novel, Will Eisner's A Contract With God, really isn't a novel but an anthology of four loosely related short stories. Eisner admitted that he used the phrase essentially as a gimmick. "In a futile effort to entice the patronage of a mainstream publisher, I called it a 'graphic novel.'"* Besides graphic novel, Eisner also coined and sometimes preferred the term "sequential art" to describe this format. Really, who am I to argue with Eisner?

But ultimately, I landed on "graphic literature" as my label of preference. I acknowledge it is imperfect (what with "graphic" also able to mean obscene, excessive, or even pornographic), but I like that it alludes to both the visual and literary aspects of the medium.

Okay, okay, okay, but what does all of this have to do with Wednesday Theology? Well, socially legitimizing the format will go a long way to entice theologians and creators to create graphic theology as well as convincing readers to try reading a hypothetical work of graphic theology. Further, theology is a discipline of language. If we call Crumb's incredible graphic version of Genesis, The Book of Genesis, a graphic novel, then does that mean we should refer to Genesis, in general, as a novel? As much as I champion the nature and power of stories here, I would probably balk at labeling Genesis a novel. Much of the Bible is an intricate tapestry of numerous literary genres that defy a singular label.

And one more thing. Remember A Contract With God, the, more or less, first graphic novel? Here's what Eisner said about his intent for the making the book: "I sat down and tried to do a book that would physically look like a 'legitimate' book and at the same time write about a subject matter that would never have been addressed in comic form, which is man's relationship with God."**

Yeah. I'm not the first person to think about theology and comic books.

*Will Eisner, The Contract with God Trilogy, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), xiv.
**Andrew D. Arnold, “The Graphic Novel Silver Anniversary,” in Graphic Novels and Comic Books, The Reference Shelf, Vol.82, no. 5, ed. Kat Kan, 5-7 (New York: W.H. Wilson, 2010), 5.

No comments:

Post a Comment