Master Of The Obvious: Issue #31

Wed, March 1st, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Steven Grant

Master Of The Obvious #31 3.01.00

Pity the poor graphic novel. So much respect. Grandly touted as the great hope of comics for decades now, the maturation of the medium, and reviewed deferentially in places that wouldn't touch mere comic books in a hundred years. Yet the graphic novel - a true graphic novel - barely exists. It's like a man hanging over an abyss by his fingernails, while news helicopters fly overhead and reporters broadcast the scene to millions and tout the man's stamina and athleticism. That he's going to die if he keeps proving himself that way never seems to occur to them.

In 1969, the great Alex Toth discussed with Vince Davis, Richard Kyle and Bill Spicer the then new concept of "graphic novels." Toth's comments are hauntingly familiar and contemporary:

Q: Someday graphic novels will take up where comic books are leaving off… do you think you'd be interested?

TOTH: I'd probably blow my brains out. It could be done, and there are plenty of guys around who would and could do it. But I'd rather have twenty 10-page stories than one 200-page story. I found this to be the case when I was freelancing; I could be tired as hell, having just come off a job, when a new script would arrive in the mail and I'd be perked up about it. Despite being tired, and wanting a few days before starting the next assignment, a new script would get me enthused. Change itself is refreshing; a new subject to tackle is stimulating. It juices you up to get into it right away. To sustain yourself for 100 or 200 pages would be rough. Even those 34-pagers used to drive me up a wall. It would have to be a damn good script to keep me going.

This graphic novel concept frightens me. Although I have to wonder where comics are going, where the medium is really going. If comic books are going down the drain, and if newspaper strips are being killed off… then I think the strip may be finished. If they would reach out into new subject areas, maybe graphic novels will happen as dollar or two dollar softcovers in black&white or color. The medium deserves a better shake than it's gotten from its practitioners who're making it go on the way it's been going down. I don't know who's really doing the experimentation and planning for new offshoots of the strip. I'd like to get into it, though, when it happens.

Q: I don't think anyone is doing it, not on a commercial scale.

TOTH: We all talk about it, but nobody's doing anything about it. And what about distribution. Distributors don't want to deal with books irregularly published, or one-shots. That's why I think the adult comic book, or another version of it, will wind up in bookstores. It's going to have to update itself and improve its quality and change its face somehow so it can go into bookstores and stay on shelves for a time and make it as a dollar or two-dollar item - but only if it tackles other subject areas that are taboo in other comic strip formats.

Q: There'd also have to be drastic revisions in he writing that would go into a graphic novel. If interest can be sustained in a play or a movie that lasts two or three hours, the same could be done in a graphic novel that would take as long to read. It couldn't be structured like ordinary comic books - it would have to sustain both the readers' and the artist's interest. If movies, novels, plays and TV dramas can do it, I see no reason why comics can't.

TOTH: Yes, to have the right structure. With a good script, yes, your 200-pager could be done. The writing would have to be top notch. And visual…

Aside from the now laughable price of a dollar or two for a 200 page color graphic novel, the interview could have been done last week. Unlike then, American graphic novels exist, but barely.

People have come to use the term "graphic novel" to mean a lot of things. Most original American graphic novels aren't novels at all. At 42-62 pages, they're novellas at best, longer than most comics but hardly novel length, and in complexity and content they're rarely distinguishable from 32 page color comics. Trade paperbacks are often referred to as graphic novels. They're not. They're collections of runs of comic books. (I always have a Beavis & Butthead reaction when I read that phrase.) The issues usually combine into one long story, but they still don't have a novelistic structure. They're structured to fit the physical constraints of comic books - opening splash, some sort of resolution or cliffhanger ever 22 pages, that sort of thing - even if the talent brings to them a sophistication and style uncommon in comic books. Those who read comics are self-trained to ignore these restrictions and accept them as fundamental, but when you read a string of comics in a row with open eyes, even something as strong as PREACHER, you start to feel the weight the standard comics structure forces on the material. Dressing an ape in a suit and forcing him to stand up straight doesn't make him a man.

"when you read a string of comics in a row with open eyes, even something as strong as PREACHER, you start to feel the weight the standard comics structure forces on the material."[Preacher: Gone To Texas]

They're not graphic novels.

Like I said, the concept of the graphic novel has been rattling around for decades. Blame it on the French. European graphic novels started showing up in the late 60s and were a cause celbr in certain fan and pro circles well into the '70s. But the French had a structure for creating graphic novels: the magazines PILOTE and PHENIX, and later METAL HURLANT. Writers and artists can't create extended stories overnight and need to eat while they're producing, and few publishers can afford to underwrite a massive project for long without recouping costs somewhere. PILOTE appeared weakly, on good paper with gorgeous color, and only published what was available that week. If Charlier & Giraud had only two pages of their latest LT. BLUEBERRY epic done, that's what they'd publish. If the next week, it was four, they'd publish that. If the section ended without a cliffhanger, fine. If it did, all the better. There wasn't a specific required length for any of them. With many graphic novels in production at any given time, it was no trick for them to fill the magazine each week, and when the story (or, in the case of LT. BLUEBERRY, the sub-story; one LT. BLUEBERRY epic goes on for 8 books and hundreds of pages) was completed, it was collected into a graphic novel that read like…

Like a novel.

This is an important distinction. We've been blathering on for years about the potential of the medium. (I know I have, anyway.) But we've also forced ourselves into constructs we're so used to now that we no longer question them, like a character in Orwell's 1984. (I'm flashing on the scene from Louis Malle's MY DINNER WITH ANDRE where Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn characterize society as a concentration camp where the prisoners are the guards.)

[A Small Killing]
A Small Killing

There are true graphic novels, or at least books approaching them. Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate's A SMALL KILLING. Howard Cruse's STUCK RUBBER BABY. Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's SIGNAL TO NOISE and MR. PUNCH. M. John Harrison and Ian Miller's THE LUCK IN THE HEAD. Kyle Baker's WHY I HATE SATURN. John Wagner's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. (I forget who drew it offhand. Sorry.) There are others. These are all distinguishable from regular comics and from trade paperbacks, and even those pissant oversized comics that usually pass for graphic novels here, by approach and by content. They use the comics form, but they function as novels.

The comic book structure, and much of the content, is a byproduct of limitation of space. In any given comic book, there's only so much room to move. A prerequisite amount of action is necessary to qualify as a story (which brings us back to two fight scenes, a chase and a weird villain). Stories are broken down into what, in film, would be master shots. But master shots tell only the story, which is to say the plot - it's not surprising that the business has gravitated to plot-centric concepts like the superhero - while, in film, it's what happens around the master shots that brings nuance. Commerce has brought us to this - the standard comic book is the form publishers have traditionally accepted as most profitable - and we're pretty much stuck with it until a lot of minds in the business start to change.

But the comic book structure can't be extended indefinitely over space. It's built for the 22-28 page form, and the only ways to comfortably extend it are a) more splash and double-splash pages, and b) break the long form down into more manageable 22-28 page blocks. Past a certain point it collapses of its own weight anyway. WATCHMEN or V FOR VENDETTA may not suffer (much) from lengths of 144 pages and more, but most stories can barely sustain 44, and what goes beyond that is mostly padding and fight scenes, hardly worth the extended space. (While most European graphic novels don't approach the 144 page length, their pages are generally half again as big as ours, and between that and the greater panel-per-page ratio, they allow for considerably more story per book than American counterparts.)

What we've been calling the graphic novel is inadequate. 132 pages - the equivalent of six months worth of regular comics - is about the minimum we should accept for the designation. 200-250 is more in the realm of truth in advertising. Toth gets it exactly right when he says, "To sustain yourself for 100 or 200 pages would be rough… Yes, to have the right structure. With a good script, yes, your 200-pager could be done. The writing would have to be top notch. And visual…"

"What we've been calling the graphic novel is inadequate. 132 pages - the equivalent of six months worth of regular comics - is about the minimum we should accept for the designation."

To write true graphic novels, we're going to have to shake the junk out of our ears and screw our heads back on differently, writers, artists and editors alike. Such length would force new narrative structures and better stories just to sustain itself and entice an audience. Filling the void with proportionately more plot would turn stories ponderous (unless one approaches the plotting skills of a Victor Hugo, and few do), so writers would need to rely considerably more on character, theme, texture and similar often-ignored elements of fiction in sheer self-defense. The additional room would force artists to rethink their visual approaches, because novelty alone, and a few splashy tricks, would no longer be enough to sustain interest over space. To enforce familiar comics structure on it is death, meaning editors, currently forced by the nature of what they produce to focus on minutiae within a limited scope, would have to learn new approaches and new structures themselves.

Distribution is no longer an issue. While Diamond still appears reticent about handling graphic novels and trade paperbacks, they do it. Book distributors are no longer strangers to the concept, and have learned graphic novels can be profitable. Publishers are still the biggest problem. We need a way to amortize the cost of producing graphic novels. American audiences remain hostile enough to the comics anthology that a PILOTE-style magazine may be a stillborn issue. Without some structure in place, the creation of graphic novels naturally falls to hungry youngsters with less need for money than middle aged professionals, and old men who've made enough that they no longer have to worry about money and can develop what they like at their leisure. (In other words, Will Eisner. I can't think of anyone else.) And I suspect publishers subconsciously fear the graphic novel. By sheer dint of its higher costs (though the higher price point ultimately makes it very attractive when taken on its own merits), the graphic novel eats up a bigger percentage of the readers' budget and, if it caught out, would threaten the hegemony of the monthly comics, still the mainstay of most publishers' portfolio.

Artistically, there have been three major developments in the comics medium. In the mid-30s, comic books were first created by reprinting newspaper strips. By the late-30s, men like Bob Kane and Will Eisner were applying storytelling techniques from film to the comics format, started a divergence from comic strip origins, but deference to comic strip structure was enforced by publishers until the 60s, and it wasn't until the 70s that the comic book as a medium finally moved away (though never entirely) from the basic comic strip format, and comic books became truly distinguishable from their antecedents.

The graphic novel - breaking away from the constraints of the comic book as comics broke from the constraints of the newspaper strip - is the next great leap. It will no more kill the comic book than comic books killed strips, but, unless we strangle it in its crib, it's the only serious venue for new development of the medium, if we want to shed from our patina of disposability and step up to the next level.

We've been talking about it for 30 years. Time to get real, in a big way.

@VENTURE, the online fiction magazine, debuts in two short weeks at www.atventure.com. For those who came in late, @VENTURE will publish prose fiction by comic book writers, and we already have a rainbow of stories from writers famous, infamous and just making their mark. Beware the ides of March.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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