When I was in High School, I began referring to myself as a “Panelogolist.” That is to say someone who studied panels, because it wasn’t at all cool to tell people that I read funnybooks (which is what my Uncle used to call them, and I still do so as to not give me too large a sense of self-importance). In fact back then (in High School) a friend was selling me his collection, but since he didn’t want anyone to know he read comics, we would meet in the men’s room, where he would pass me a paper bag and I would hand over a prearranged amount of cash.
My point is that for years we in the comics industry have been embarrassed by the fact that we read, enjoy, and make our living in comics. so we have continually sought to upgrade our image, by telling anyone who would listen that comics aren’t just for kids. One of the things we did to “upgrade” our image, as it were, was to tell longer, more intricate (more mature) stories in a longer form that are now referred to as a Graphic Novels. As an industry, we credit Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978) as being the first Graphic Novel, only what we tend to forget is that that’s not what it was called at the time.
In those days we really referred to books like Eisner’s opus, Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy’s Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species (Eclipse, 1978), and others from that time as trade paperbacks. Yes, yes, I know that Eisner was the one who brought the term Graphic Novel into vogue, but I want to point out that Wikipedia calls Sabre both a Graphic Novel and a Trade Paperback, while McGregor’s own site refers to it as a Graphic Album. To be sure, the Marvel Treasury Editions (one of the earliest of which was the historic Superman Vs. Spider-Man) could technically be classified as a Graphic Novel (because at 94 pages it is only 18 pages shorter than the length of five standard-size comics, which is about the length of the story arc that is currently being bound in “Graphic Novels.”)
All of which leads me to postulate that Shakespeare was right, a rose by any other name would be a pretentious, long-form funnybook selling for three times what a regular comic does — or whatever it was that he said about a rose smelling.
I say all of this because recently I found myself engaged in a frustrating game of semantics over what we should call a 100+ page, square bound funnybook retailing for $10.00. The point of the folks to whom I was speaking being that we needed to call it what people expected to have it called, otherwise those people (the potential customers) wouldn’t know what it was. To me, this type of pseudo-intellectual “logic” exhibits a special type of ignorance which indicated to me that the individuals in question simply didn’t understand the etymology of the words they were using.
According to general consensus, a (prose) novel runs between 50,000 to 100,000 words, with a story from around 17,500 to 40,000 words a novella and one from 7,500 to 17,500 words being classified as a Novelette, while anything under 7,500 words classified as a short story. Now while I realize that “graphic” novels probably don’t contain anything close to 50,000 words, the fact that the images on the page make up the difference. Still, I think that we can all agree that a graphic novel is a long form (square bound) comicbook.
Needless to say, it was really probably Marvel Comics which truly made the term “graphic novel” part of the lexicon when it began issuing its line of GNs in 1982 (Starting with The Death of Captain Marvel). Hence, now-a-days, everyone wants to call this type of a publication a graphic novel whether it truly is one or not. Why is this even an issue, you may ask, because it is, well wrong.
I understand that, to most folks what we call a long-form, square bound, higher-priced funnybook has about as much real-world value as to who Bret Michaels from Rock of Love picks as Penthouse Pet, or who becomes the boy-toy of the MILF on The Cougar. Still, as a professional wordsmith, the meaning and use of words is important to me (just as the use of tools is important to a carpenter or plumber). Which brings me back to my point.
A novel, is a long-form (written) narrative; making a graphic novel a long-form (square bound) comicbook. (A minor digression here, comics are — by and large — neither comical nor books, even though that’s what we call them. As no less than Stan Lee himself points out, by combining the two disparate words (neither of which actually describe what these colorful pamphlets truly are) we have essentially created a new genre that is complete and to itself. Which is why I, like Stan before me, always call them “comicbooks” (one word) rather than “comic books” (two words). Thus creating the entirely new category of literature in which we all ply our trade.) Still, the operative word in this term is novel, a long-form story. thus making both prose and graphic novels a single tale told over an extended amount of pages.
A collection of short stories (even ones bound together by a similar theme) is simply not a novel, not by anyone’s definition. Steve Ditko’s The Thing! which serves up 27 short classic horror stories penned by Steve, is not a graphic novel, nor is The Origins of Marvel Comics. These are both Trade Paperbacks. I will, however coincide that Watchman, though originally told in 12, consecutive monthly comicbook installments is a graphic novel.
The difference is that, even though it was originally serialized, it tells a single, long-form narrative. There certainly is enough precedence for this with prose literature (I believe that much of both Dickens and Twain’s work was initially serialized before being gathered together in bound volumes). Hell, I’m even willing to go so far as to say that many of today’s comics which are told in five-to-six-issue story arcs and then bound together for resale at bookstores, can be considered graphic novels in their square bound form, as they tell a single story in the longer on-going life of an eternally serialized character or characters.
For a thematically-driven, collection of stories, I would use the term Graphic Album rather than the (fully accepted by the great unwashed masses as correct) term, graphic novel. The reason for this, as stated, it is a collection of stories, not a single tale, and even though the term itself may be a tad unfamiliar to the general public, so to was graphic novel back in the late ‘70s (when they were called Trade Paperbacks). This would serve two purposes, first of all it would be more accurate a description, plus it would allow the marketing department to leverage the new term into a greater press awareness of the product itself. Which, as we all know, is ultimately the sole purpose of the marketing department in this entire sequence of events.
And yeah, I realize that even after all of this discussion, there are still folks out there (like my Uncle, were he still with us) who would call comics, Comic Trade Paperbacks, Graphic Novels, and Graphic Albums “Funnybooks,” so why bother with the discussion in the first place? The only answer I have for this is the next time you are in the presence of a professional carpenter pick up his best lug wrench and try to use it to pound in a nail.
Still, after all is said and done, the real-world difference between comicbooks and graphic Novels? About ten bucks!