The Graphic Novel Silver Anniversary

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"You mean like pornographic?" queried the startled librarian when I asked for help researching articles about graphic novels. She had never heard the term for book-length comics used before. It's admittedly a not very well-liked phrase. Even among comic-makers the term only gets grudging usage, mostly because any alternative would be even less recognized. But "graphic novels" in name and in form have reached their 25th anniversary in 2003. To mark the occasion TIME.comix has two-part coverage. This week we look into their history, controversy and recent extraordinary growth. Next week will be an "instant library" list of 25 graphic novels that shouldn't be missed.

Will Eisner's "A Contract with God," published in 1978, gets the credit for being the first graphic novel, though it was not actually the first long-form graphic story nor the first use of the phrase. It was, however, the first marriage of the term, which appeared on the cover, and the intent of "serious" comix in book form. "It was intended as a departure from the standard, what we call 'comic book format,'" Will Eisner recently told TIME.comix. "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." Though the concept of a "graphic novel" had been brought up among comix fans during the 1960s, Eisner claims to have to come up with it independently, as a form of spontaneous sleight-of-hand marketing. "[The phrase] 'graphic novel' was kind of accidental," Eisner said. While pitching the book to an important trade-book editor in New York, says Eisner, "a little voice inside me said, 'Hey stupid, don't tell him itís a comic or he'll hang up on you.' So I said, 'It's a graphic novel.'" Though that particular editor wasn't swayed by the semantics, dismissing the book as "comics," a small publisher eventually took the project and put the phrase "A Graphic Novel" on the cover, thereby permanently cementing the term into the lexicon.

The first graphic novel: published 25 years ago and still in print

Even then the terminology didn't really fit. "A Contract with God," was actually four short stories and not like a traditional novel at all. Art Spiegelman, author of the comix Holocaust memoir "Maus," recalled when "Contract" first came out. "I liked one of the stories very much but it didn't register with me as having anything to do with what I had already climbed on my isolated tower to try to make, which was a long comic book that would need a bookmark." In the past 25 years the meaning of the phrase has only gotten hazier and less satisfying. Japanese manga, superhero collections, non-fiction, autobiography — all of these are "graphic novels," a term that now applies to any square-bound book with a story told in comics format. "The problem with the word 'graphic novel' is that it is an arguably misguided bid for respectability where graphics are respectable and novels are respectable so you get double respectability," Spiegelman says. Eisner himself dislikes the phrase, calling it a "limited term," and prefers "graphic literature or graphic story."

Either of those terms seems preferable to the striving, mostly-inaccurate "graphic novel." But some would argue against any such terminology. Chip Kidd, book designer and "graphic novel" editor at Pantheon, an imprint of the giant trade publisher Random House, loathes the ghettoizing of such books, starting with their name. "What I don't like is when we have to categorize everything in order to appreciate or understand it," he wrote in an email. "At Pantheon, we do not see these books as part of a 'line,' or a 'program' any more than we would books by Ha Jin or Stanley Crouch. They are simply books we want to publish that happen to use the form of visual narrative."

As a critic, though, I would argue that these types of books are fundamentally different from prose. Blurring the line between them would be charmingly quixotic at best and harmful at worst. That which distinguishes drawn books from prose is what we love about them. The Artistry is different — way beyond mere genre — and must be celebrated. In order to talk about the unique pleasures of drawn books we necessarily distinguish them from their text-only relatives.

But categorizing graphic novels goes beyond artistic semantics to the real bottom line — dollars and cents. Most big bookstores, like Barnes & Noble and Borders, put all the graphic novels together in one place. Trade bookstores have become an increasingly important outlet for comic publishers so the strategy for selling them on the floor has become critical. Should Superman, manga and "Maus," sit side by side? Chip Kidd, among many others, can't stand this. "I truly believe that Spiegelman's 'Maus' should be shelved next to Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, not next to the X-Men. Maus is a Holocaust memoir first and a comicbook second." Micha Hershman, the graphic novel buyer for the Borders bookstore chain has no such doubts. "The graphic novel is a format," he says. "We would not segment the category by splitting up the graphic novel section." According to Hershman, Borders' research shows the "demographics for 'Maus' overlap with the ones for Spider-Man," so that it is theoretically easier to lure the reader of one to the other than it is to lure a reader of Elie Wiesel to "Maus."

Something seems to be working because graphic novels have finally reached a point of critical mass in both popular consciousness and sales. Jim King, VP of Sales and Service at Nielsen Bookscan, a book sales monitoring service, says that, based on preliminary research, sales for graphic novels have increased "exponentially." Micha Hershman at Borders confirms the trend, saying, "over the last four years graphic novels have shown the largest percentage of growth in sales over any other book category." English-translated Japanese comics, or manga, are chiefly responsible for this growth, according to Hershman. More specifically, manga aimed at girls, called shojo, have exploded. "Superheroes are up a little," says Hershman, " Alternative comics are up a little. But 60% of all Border's graphic novel sales are shojo."

Comic specialty shops have felt the up-tick too. Nick Purpura, a manager at Jim Hanley's Universe, a comic store in New York City, also reports an annual increase in graphic novel sales, most particularly in manga. Could graphic novels eventually make the traditional comic book disappear? Frank Miller, author of "The Dark Knight Returns," recently shocked a comics industry crowd at the annual Eisner awards by pronouncing the format to be a goner, declaring, "Our future is not in pamphlets." Nick Purpura disputes this, saying, "the serialized versions pay for the trades. That way publishers get to sell it twice — once to comics fans and again to people who only buy collections." Even so, he says, "books that sold marginally as comics sell better as graphic novels." Additionally, there have been an increasing number of "original graphic novels," as Purpura calls them, which never appeared in serialized form. The most impressive example of these is DC comics' October release of "Sandman: Endless Nights," by Neil Gaiman, which reached number 20 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The future of the graphic novel seems both sunny and dim. As a term for a kind of book, "graphic novel" has become increasingly dissatisfying. "Maybe for a short window it was enough to say 'graphic novel' but soon it won't be," says Art Spiegelman, "because if you talk about [Chris Ware's] 'Jimmy Corrigan' as a graphic novel you'll have to explain that it's not manga or Marvel. Then you are left saying, 'well it's got a seriousness of purpose' that the phrase 'graphic novel' alone won't offer." On the positive side, the public awareness of these books has vastly increased, creating a kind of renaissance era of intense creativity and quality. Says Spiegelman, "Ultimately the future of the graphic novel is dependent on how much great work gets produced against all odds. I'm much more optimistic than I was that there's room for something and I know that right now there's more genuinely interesting comic art than there's been for decades and decades."

Watch for part two of TIME.comix' special report next week.