Text of George Washington University lecture

On Wednesday, I had the incredible honor of delivering the third lecture in this year’s Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series at George Washington University. I was invited by Professor Faye Moskowitz and Professor Lisa Page. The lecture was entitled “The Graphic Novel: A Gentle Introduction” and was accompanied by a Google Drive presentation which can be found here. The text of the talk follows, though it should be noted that this does not represent everything I actually said.

I’m very pleased to be here, and I’d like to thank you all and especially Professor Moskowitz and Professor Page for giving me this opportunity to talk to you about the grahpic novel. I have a deep passion for comics and graphic novels, both as a scholar and as a lifelong fan, and I appreciate the chance to educate other people on why the graphic novel matters and what it has to do with creative writing. In this lecture, I plan to begin with a brief explanation of what the graphic novel actually is, then I’m going to survey the history and the current state of the art form, and I’m going to conclude with some suggestions for integrating comics into creative writing practice.

So let me first say that the graphic novel is a form of literary art but it’s also a marketing term. The actual term graphic novel dates from the sixties, but it was initially popularized in the ‘70s by an artist named Will Eisner, who I will discuss later, and it was intended as a more respectable term for what is more commonly known as a comic book. So in terms of their formal elements, the graphic novel and the comic book are the same thing. The primary difference is publishing format; a comic book is a periodical published in magazine form, a graphic novel is a hardcover or paperback book. And the term graphic novel suggests a degree of seriousness that’s missing from the term comic; it seems more acceptable to talk about graphic novels than comic books in a place like this. But the formal elements of the graphic novel and the comic book or comic strip are the same. Essentially, graphic novels are a subset of the larger medium or art form of comics, and what defines graphic novels is that compared to other types of comics, graphic novels tend to be more serious and adult-oriented and they tend to be published in book format. Essentially, graphic novels are long-form comics.

So to understand how graphic novels work, we need to talk briefly about the art form of comics. SLIDE 2 A comic is a story told through a series of static pictures, usually with words. So a comic is not just an illustrated text, where the words tell the bulk of the story and the pictures just provide extra nonessential information. In the graphic novel, the pictures actually tell the story and we wouldn’t be able to understand it otherwise. Here is a very simple example. SLIDE 3 The caption of this cartoon is “What the – this is lemonade! Where’s my culture of amoebic dysentery?” Now the humor here relies entirely on the relationship between word and image. Without the image, we don’t know what happened to the culture of amoebic dysentery; without the text, we can’t interpret why the one scientist is annoyed and the other is shocked. Now some people argue that single-panel cartoons are not the same thing as comics, but I use this cartoon to demonstrate the difference between comics and illustrated texts: in comics, the pictures don’t just illustrate the words, they are essential to understanding what’s going on. Here is a more extended example of the same thing. SLIDE 4 Now it is also possible to have a comic where the story relies primarily on the text, but even then the pictures often play a larger role than they would in a traditional illustrated novel. And here’s another simple example of a comic where the humor relies on both words and images. I emphasize the importance of pictures in comics because I find that when people whose background is primarily in literature start to read comics, they often assume that the basic point of the comic is the words, and the pictures are just illustrations. And that’s not the case. In comics, much like in film, the pictures are essential to telling the story. Or rather, pictures and words, if there are words, need to work together, and this means that neither pictures nor words function in comics in the same way as they do in isolation. Comics typically employ a cartoony style of artwork rather than a photorealistic style of artwork, SLIDE 5 but this is not because of ineptitude; this is because cartoony images are easier to read than more realistic images. And comics typically employ a rather limited amount of text, because when a comic includes too much text, it slows down the process of reading and draws attention away from the images. A page like this SLIDE 6 is an example of ineffective comics storytelling.

So does this help to explain how comics work? Then let me explain what the graphic novel is specifically and how it relates to earlier genres of comics. And here I will focus mostly on the American cultural context; there are also many other independent traditions of comics of which the most important are Franco-Belgian and Japanese comics, SLIDE 7 but for reasons of scope I’m not going to discuss those in depth. So in America, comic strips published in newspapers started to become a significant mass medium in the late 19th century, partly because they were an effective way of using new color printing technologies. And comic strips back before World War II were absolutely gorgeous, nothing like the garbage that passes for newspaper comics today. SLIDE 8 The comic book, as a standalone publication rather than a newspaper strip insert, was invented in the 1930s. SLIDE 9 And until the 1950s, the comic book was a genuine mass medium, as popular as video games are today, but it was targeted primarily at children – I’ve heard that in the 1940s, over 90% of American children read comic books. But as with video games nowadays, the popularity of the comic book led to fears about its harmful influences on children, and in the 1950s, the psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham led a nationwide crusade against comic books on the grounds that they caused juvenile delinquency. SLIDE 10 This led to the imposition of the Comics Code, a harsh code of censorship that specified standards of content that comic books had to follow in order to be sold on newsstands. SLIDE 11 The Comics Code is often seen as disastrous because it crippled the ability of comic books to engage with mature material and it also cemented the association between comics and children. And even today, when we think about comic books, we still tend to see them as a medium for children, even though, ironically, comic books nowadays are mostly read by adults.

But how did we get from the children’s medium of comic books to the adult medium of the graphic novel? One early influence was the tradition of woodcut novels by artists like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel. SLIDE 12 These were called novels but they typically had no words, and they told serious stories with a high degree of artistic skill. But we can really trace the contemporary graphic novel back to underground comix of the ‘60s, which were able to avoid the Comics Code because the Code only applied to comics sold on newsstands, and underground comix were sold in headshops and other nontraditional distribiution channels. SLIDE 13 And they took advantage of this freedom to incorporate sex and extreme violence and drug abuse, but also to address more serious topics. One especially important underground comic was Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, which is about his struggles with religion and obsessive-compulsive disorder. SLIDE 14 Now this sort of thing helped to create a climate of greater acceptance of adult-oriented comics, and Will Eisner, who had been working in comics since the 1930s, was able to get a traditional print publisher to publish his book A Contract with God, which is often incorrectly described as the first graphic novel. Ironically this work is not a novel in the literary sense but a collection of four short stories which are linked by their focus on New York Jewish tenement life. SLIDE 15 And as I said before, Eisner described this work as a graphic novel because of the prejudice that comics were for kids.

But the work that led to the contemporary acceptance of the graphic novel was Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. SLIDE 16 Maus is by Art Spiegelman, who was a member of the younger generation of underground cartoonists, and it was published as a book in 1986 after being serialized in Spiegelman’s anthology Raw. In another example of the slipperiness of the term graphic novel, Maus is not a novel but a work of nonfiction, an account of his father Vladek’s experiences in the Holocaust. Maus is also an autobiographical work, because in addition to retelling Vladek’s story, Art Spiegleman shows himself interviewing Vladek and he depicts the troubled nature of his own relationship with his father. SLIDE 17 And the famous visual gimmick of Maus is that all the characters are depicted as animals, according to ethnicity; the Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Polish people are pigs, etc. Now when Maus first came out, people in the literary establishment didn’t know how to categorize it; the back cover of the book says “put aside all your preconceptions, this is a new form of literature” and a lot of reviews argued that Maus was not a comic, it was something entirely different. But I would argue that Maus is essentially an example of the same art form as all the other less artistically oriented comics we’ve just been looking at. And indeed, Art Spiegelman, in creating Maus, was deeply influenced by comic books and comic strips. What distinguishes graphic novels like Maus from earlier types of comic books are their level of seriousness and artistic ambition, or maybe to put it less charitably, the fact that they aim for a highbrow audience. Also, graphic novels are typically created by a single author, unlike commercial comics, where the writer and artist are usually two separate people. With a commercial comic book like Superman or Spider-Man, the primary selling point is the character, and the writer and artist are just hired hands working on that character, whereas with graphic novels, the primary selling point is the creator. And also, as I mentioned before, graphic novels are published in book form and they are often sold in bookstores, rather than comic book stores, which as we all know have a rather negative public image.

So the success of Maus helped lead to a graphic novel boom which is still ongoing. Graphic novels are now regularly reviewed in publications like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and are regularly taught in English courses – for example, in my current position probably half my colleagues have taught comics at one time or another. And I think that younger generations are starting to see graphic novels not as some new innovation but simply as another literary genre alongside prose and poetry. A few graphic novels, specifically Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home, have even entered the literary canon. As a lifelong fan of comics I find this to be an exciting development in many ways. At the same time, however, I believe that the current graphic novel boom has resulted in an excessive emphasis on certain genres at the expense of others. So I’m going to present a historical survey of the current state of the graphic novel, including a discussion of some popular genres, but I also want to suggest some other interesting trends in the field that are not getting sufficient attention.

So the most popular current genre of graphic novels is the autobiographical comic or graphic memoir. Notable examples of this include Maus as well as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which are the two other graphic novels that have achieved canonical status. These works typically deal with the cartoonist’s personal history, often including the cartoonist’s attempt to work through some sort of trauma. Fun Home, for example, which many of you may have read, is about how Bechdel’s father, a closeted gay man, died in an apparent suicide at the same time Bechdel herself was coming out as a lesbian. SLIDE 18 Persepolis is by an Iranian woman and it’s about her experiences in the Islamic Revolution and then as an emigrant in France. SLIDE 19 Other notable authors working in this genre include Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner, Craig Thompson, and the late Harvey Pekar. The graphic memoir is also an important genre in Europe. Besides Persepolis the most important European comic in this genre is David B’s Epileptic, which is about the author’s relationship with his severely epileptic brother. SLIDE 20 And as you can see, David B was a major stylistic influence on Satrapi. The graphic novel is attractive as a medium for autobiography because the act of drawing comics is in some ways intensely personal. When you read a comic, you are not just reading the author’s words, you are actually seeing the physical trace of the artist’s hand. Now this is not literally true in the sense that comics, unlike for example paintings, are mass-produced artifacts; what we see in a comic is not the artist’s original artwork but a photographic or digital reproduction thereof. And yet there’s still this sense that the comic we read is the direct result of the artist’s physical act of drawing, and this creates a sense of physical connection to the artist that’s not present in prose or poetry. Comics seem like a personal, intimate medium, and this is why comics and autobiography seem naturally suited to each other.

Closely related to graphic memoir are graphic history and graphic journalism, in which comics are used to chronicle real events from either the remote or the recent past. The most famous practitioner of this genre is Joe Sacco, who has used comics to create journalistic accounts of events such as the occupation of Palestine or the Bosnian war. SLIDE 21 And there has recently been an explosion of other works in this genre, ranging from Nick Abadzis’s Laika, about the first dog to be sent into space, to Josh Neufeld’s AD: New Orleans After the Deluge, which is a fictionalized account of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe the best testimony to the contemporary acceptance of the graphic novel is that a genuine national hero, Representative John Lewis, chose to use comics to tell the story of his experiences in the civil rights movement. His graphic novel March, which was illustrated by an award-winning graphic novelist, Nate Powell, was released last year, and I expect it to win a bunch of major awards. SLIDE 22 Now why is the graphic novel such a powerful tool for narrating past or recent history? Partly because it adds a visual element that’s missing from historical prose; comics allow you to depict not just what happened in the past but what the past would have looked like. In a comic you can depict even the most incidental details of the past in a visually realistic fashion. An example is Frank Young and David Lasky’s graphic novel biography of the Carter Family, the pioneering country music group. They were careful to depict even the most minute details of Appalachian life in the depression era; for example, there’s one scene where the Carters are recording in a studio and there are quilts hung up on the walls to keep out noise. SLIDE 23 And all the quilts are based on actual photographs of quilts from that period. That’s an example of the level of historical accuracy that’s possible in comics, and in order to replicate that sort of thing in a film, you would need a multimillion-dollar budget. At the same time, though, historical or journalistic comics don’t just give you historical accuracy; they also give you an account of history that’s filtered through the unique sensibilities of the particular cartoonist, and that contrast between historical truth and subjective interpretation is central to the genre.

So you might notice that again, a lot of these graphic novels are not actually novels but nonfictional works, and nonfiction has tended to dominate the discourse on comics both in the academy and among literary critics. I think this is partly a historical accident, because of the influence of works like Maus and Fun Home, and it’s also partly because works like these are easy for literary scholars to understand and to discuss in connection with prose literature. Maus, for example, is often used in courses on Jewish studies and Holocaust studies, and Fun Home is easy to use in literature classes because it’s absolutely full of references to literary works like Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. But in terms of sheer numbers the vast majority of comics are fictional. Now many of the most popular graphic novels are works of genre fiction like Batman or The Walking Dead, SLIDE 24 and works like these are important not only on their own merits but also as sources for other media like film and TV. And I assume these kinds of comics are of limited interest to this audience so I won’t say much about them. But there are also a broad range of graphic novels on more realistic themes. This genre is much too large to survey in detail, but a couple authors worth mentioning are the Hernandez brothers, Jaime and Gilbert, whose work focuses extensively on Latino/a and Chicano/a culture. SLIDE 25 And Chris Ware, probably the most important author of fictional comics in America now, whose work is notable both for the insane robotic perfection of the art and the horrible emotional bleakness of the storytelling. SLIDE 26 Jessica Abel’s La Perdida is about an American woman who travles to Mexico and finds herself completely out of her depth. SLIDE 27 The lesson here is that in comics it’s possible to tell stories about anything – like Harvey Pekar said, comics are words and pictures, you can do anything with words and pictures. I mean, you could say that the commercial comics marketplace is dominated by superhero comics and the literary comics scene is dominated by biographical and historical works, but those do not exhaust the possibilities of the comics medium. You can tell any kind of story in a graphic novel – though not necessarily in the same way you would tell it in a work of prose fiction. Comics are not limited in what they can do, and this is proven by the fact that in Japan there are comics, or manga, for essentially every audience and on every topic – I’ve even heard that in Japan they published a comics guide to estimating sewer construction costs.

Since I’m talking to an audience of creative writers, I should also briefly mention that the use of visual images in poetry has a distinguished history and that this tradition has strong affinities with comics. I suppose there is a notion that poetry is a purely linguistic or verbal phenomenon. But concrete or shaped poetry, where the typographic arrangement of the poetry helps to communicate its meaning, is a phenomenon going back centuries. SLIDE 28 And there is an equally long tradition of poets acccompanying their work with drawings or paintings or prints, ranging from William Blake to Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Stevie Smith. And poetry in comics form is actually a thing that exists. SLIDE 29 Probably the most famous example of this is the work of Joe Brainard. SLIDE 30 Comics also has affinities with the tradition of the artist’s book, where the design of the book and its physical layout on the page is just as important as its actual content. I’m thinking here of works like Tom Phillips’s A Humument or Anne Carson’s Nox. And to return for a second to prose fiction, literary authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and Mark Z. Danielewski and the late WG Sebald SLIDE 31 are increasingly incorporating photographs and creative typography into their work. Books like these are not comics but I think they’re becoming more prevalent for the same reason that the graphic novel is rising in popularity – that is, because we live in an increasingly visual culture and the old divisions between the word and the image, between poetry and painting, are increasingly irrelevant. Jonathan Safran Foer said this: read SLIDE 32 “I’ve never met an artist [sic] who wasn’t interested in the visual arts, yet we’ve drawn a deep line in the sand around what we consider the novel to be, and what we’re supposed to care about. So we’re in the strange position of having much to say about what hangs on gallery walls and little about what hangs on the pages of our books.” He was talking here specifically about book design, but I think the atittude expressed here also helps to explain the contemporary rise of comics. We no longer have this sense that literature needs to be confined to words on the page or that literature and poetry need to be separate arts. There is this general cultural consensus that literature can also be a visual experience or that visual images can be literary, and this is expressed in many forms one of which is comics. Of course another important aspect of contemporary visual culture is the Internet, and webcomics are a massively important segment of the contemporary comics landscape and probably have a significantly higher readership than print comics. I don’t have time to discuss webcomics in any detail but one that might be relevant to you is Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics, which is often explicitly about literature and writing. SLIDE 33

So this concludes my survey of the current state of the graphic novel, and I want to conclude by making suggestions for how to actually get started creating comics. And because I am primarily a scholar rather than a practitioner I only have limited knowledge about this myself, but I want to offer some basic suggestions. First, making comics is tough. I don’t think it makes sense to say that making comics is harder than writing prose fiction or poetry, but I think that comics and traditional literature offer different challenges. In comics, you have to pay attention not only to the text but also to the images and the size and shape of the panels on the page and the ways in which the text and image relate to each other. Even an element as seemingly unimportant as the style of lettering can have massive consequences – there is an old saying that when lettering is good, the reader doesn’t notice it, but when lettering is bad, nothing can ruin a comic book more quickly. However, there is also a caveat: you don’t need to know how to draw in order to create comics. Some notable cartoonists actually don’t draw particularly well, or they do but they intentionally choose not to. Jeffrey Brown is a good example. SLIDE 34 And in comics, like I suggested before, artwork is evaluated not by its isolated quality but by how well it serves the story. So in a first-year writing class, when I had my students make comics, I told them, this is not a studio art course, this is a writing course, and I’m not going to evaluate your work based on its merits but based on how effectively you use the medium of comics to make an argument. And if you absolutely CAN NOT draw AT ALL, there are even online applications that allow you to create comics using prerendered graphics and insert your own text. For example, here is a comic I created using a program called Bitstrips, which is perhaps most famous because of its association with some stupid Facebook memes, but there are more creative ways of using it. SLIDE 35 I even know people who have used this format to create comics about intersections between postcolonialism and the digital humanities. SLIDE 36 The lesson here is, anyone can do comics. Even people who are physically unable to draw with their hands – I know two different people who are quadriplegic and who draw comics by holding the pen in their mouths.

So how do you get started drawing comics? When I taught comics I used Matt Madden and Jessica Abel’s textbook Drawing Words and Writing Pictures SLIDE 38 which is primarily intended for beginning art students, but also provides a clear and lucid explanation of how comics work and what tools can be used to create comics and it also contains a series of creative exercises for developing various skills involved in drawing comics. But another way to get started is just to do it. Here is a simple suggestion for how to do that. One of the authors of this book, Matt Madden, also published a book called 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, which is a comics version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style which is a collection of 99 different retellings of the same story. The basic story is this. SLIDE 39 But Madden goes on to tell it 99 different ways, such as by doing it as a monologue SLIDE 40, or showing the events from upstairs rather than downstairs. SLIDE 41 So one activity you might do, and I’m sorry we don’t have time to actually do this, but you could retell this story in a different way, using a different number of panels or different words or a different style of drawing, varying some aspect of the presentation but keeping the basic story the same. This is useful because it gets you thinking about how the effect of the story changes when the style of presentaiton is altered – what happens when you delete panels or add panels or change the camera angle – and in general, it helps you understand the connection between the story itself and the visaul style in which it’s presented. And that, I think, is the basic sort of thinking that is necessary in order to create a successful comic.


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