Lately, I’ve been thinking about the language of comics. Specifically, what we call them in all their variations. We’ve got comics, graphic novels, trade paper backs, strips, web comics, cartoons. Seems like a lot to me. And, recently, I’ve had several people ask me about what the proper name is for the medium (a heavy question for one so humble as me. I’m no Scott McCloud!). I’ve also been fielding questions about just what the heck a graphic novel is. So, I thought I’d use this platform to hash out my ideas. And maybe, along the way, we’ll all learn something. Maybe…we’ll learn who we really are.
Let me start with the term graphic novel. I’ve heard lots of ways to define a graphic novel, for example “it’s a comic book you read with a book mark.” I don’t remember who said that, but someone did, promise. But here’s how I look at a graphic novel: if it’s a story that is contained, beginning, middle, and end, between the covers of the book, then it’s a graphic novel. Books like Maus and Watchmen, once they were collected, became graphic novels. I think this is the most important distinction. It gets a little murky for some people because there are hundreds of volumes of X-Men out there, as well. But that’s where the term Trade Paper Back comes into play. I don’t know if everyone uses that term, but from my history of working at a comic book store, it’s become ingrained in my mind. The difference being that a trade collects issues of a series. So, it will collect, say, five issues of the current X-Men series at a time. Thus they come out in volumes. I understand why this could be confusing to some, and lead to a sort of identity crisis when talking about comics.
I had to. I just had to.
While I do think that precision of language is important to convey any idea, I do believe that all of this lingo can leave people feeling confused. Many potential readers don’t know how to talk comics, and thus, don’t know how to begin the conversation. And if you can do that, then how do you get into the medium? Well, if you’re lucky, like me, you start reading them when you’re a kid, and don’t know or care any of these classifications exist. But, if you are older than that, you can use my personal method: calling everything comics. That might seem confusing at first, given how much is out there in the world of comics, but I find it’s actually much, much simpler in the end. Plus, I read somewhere that Alan Moore feels this way, as well. So, how much more convincing do you need?
I know that, as humans, we want to categorize everything, it’s our nature. But, I find in my daily life that, simply saying comics cuts out any confusion. People know (for the most part) what comics are. I think in the past we had to come up with these classifications to move away from the image of what comics used to be: cheap fluff (and some are still that way, and if you like that then read it, damn it!). So, we got darker comics, put them together, and called them a graphic novel. I have no problem with this term, I say it all the time in the library, where it is now common place. However, I have long had this sneaking suspicion that we began to use this term to elevate our way of speaking about comics. That meaning that, if we put the term “novel” in there, it will seem more sophisticated. And, while many graphic novels are incredibly smart, it’s not because of their format, it’s because of their creators.
But now, reading comics is commonplace, it’s accepted (mostly). So I don’t think that this sort of step is completely necessary. I do recognize that, when talking to people outside of the world of comics it’s common, because the term has been worked into our vocabulary. I still have to communicate with readers. This is to say I don’t go around correcting people when they speak to me. That is unhelpful (unless, like previously mentioned, they specifically ask me.) The last thing comics need is to for those who read them to actually be a real life Comic Book Guy.
You know I can’t resist a chance to bring up the Simpsons.
Back to my point. While we have all these words to try and communicate an idea, sometimes it does get mixed up. People ask me “what’s the difference?” “what should I call them?” And, like I said, comics works for everything, in my opinion. I mean, no matter if it’s a graphic novel, a comic strip, or a web comic, they call contain panels that make up a comic, don’t they? Now, all of this is not to say that people have to go around talking like I do. It just, in my mind, simplifies the language. However people talk about comics, I will be able to communicate. In writing this, I only hope to convey the method I find easiest.
There’s a funny thing that happens when people ask me about this, too. They ask in trepidation. They are are afraid to look like they don’t know, or that they will offend this comic book guy (no relation). That’s part of my thought process. I don’t want people to feel like they can’t ask these questions because they don’t have the linguistic codes. I don’t want them to feel like they will upset me because they don’t know what a cartoonist is or a graphic novel. In the end, I just want to spread knowledge on the subject I love most. And for me, the easiest way is to cut through it all with the one word that rules my life: comics.