“Art Spiegelman on Graphic Novel Nomenclature” by Wesley Sun
Earlier this evening, the University of Chicago played host to Comics: Philosophy & Practice—a three-day conference inviting cartoonists, comic creators, and academics to explore together the influence and interplay between words and images. The con boasts an impressive lineup of artists—17 in total—including headliners like Alison Bechdel, R. Crumb, and the legendary Art Spiegelman, who kicked off the conference as its keynote speaker.
In his remarks, Spiegelman charmed his audience by wondering aloud why he was ever hailed as “the father of the graphic novel” and how often he’s wanted a blood test. His playful humility (which was, at the same time, a nod to his own acclaim and influence) set the tone for the evening. Rather than give a traditional keynote address, which he insisted was too intimidating given the talent assembled, he preferred to sit casually and chat in an interview-style dialogue.
The opening conversation, entitled “What the %$#! Happened to Comics,” offered a survey on the development and evolution of the comics medium. And while I found this interesting, I was most intrigued by the conversation revolving around comics nomenclature and how it impacts the way we engage the work itself. During the discussion, the so-called father of graphic novels remarked that he never much cared for the term “graphic novel” in the first place. The label, Spiegelman suggests, is something of a euphemism—a way of playing into the idea that the lowly comic book just isn’t good enough to be taken seriously as literature or art. To declare a work a “graphic novel” is an attempt to give it some legitimacy, which of course implies that the medium needs legitimizing. But far from being inferior, Spiegelman considers comics to have a distinct advantage over other vehicles of storytelling. To him, there is something intuitive and natural to the way images in panels and text in word balloons work together. “Comics echo the way the brain works,” he says. “People think in iconographic images, not in holograms. And people think in bursts of language, not in paragraphs.”
I’m actually pretty sympathetic to Spiegelman’s allergy to “graphic novels”, although I use the phrase all the time. To me, to call a comic a novel suggests that the comic is of a certain page length, not of a certain quality. But of course, there are plenty of art snobs out there who enjoy drawing distinctions for no other reason than to look sophisticated. “Oh, I don’t bother with movies,” an artsy fartsy snob monster I just made up sneers, “But I just adore film!” To folks such as these, “comics” will forever be regarded as childish and trivial, as if it’s somehow built into the meaning of the word.
So sure, I can agree with Spiegelman’s basic point: as long as the snob distinction exists, putting the snob distinction into play within the discourse gives it credence. But shouldn’t there be a way to differentiate between comics of different lengths? It does change the way the story is told, after all. Maybe we should be talking about comic strips, comic books, and comic novels—and dispense with the potentially pretentious “graphic” description. So what does Spiegelman think we should call them? “A long comic book that needs a bookmark and wants to be reread.” He then admitted, in his playfully humble way, that he was never very good at advertising.
The con is off to a great start and I’m looking forward to the rest of the weekend, which you can check out for yourself via live webcast. Spiegelman wrapped up his talk by issuing a challenge to comic creators—to be less safe, take more risks, and push the envelope with their work. He practically dared other artists to do something different with comics, something nobody’s ever seen before. I’d really like to see if any comic artists out there would like to take him up on that challenge … well, I mean, other than the Sun Bros, of course.