Re: The Graphic Novel Tradition

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Following last week’s post on the notion of a ‘graphic novel tradition’ in comics, French comics journalist and connoisseur Xavier Guilbert of the distinguished comics website du9 and I have corresponded on the implications of seeking to take the term seriously as a means of identifying and describing a certain way of thinking about the comics medium and how it has developed historically.

As these things tend to do, the discussion was ended up a rather sprawling affair touching on aspects of the Franco-Belgian tradition, as well as how the term might be applied to Japanese comics. We hope you’ll enjoy, or at least take away something of interest from this. And, in any case, do let me know what you think about these issues!

Hello Matthias,
It’s interesting to note that the question of the “graphic novel” is not limited to the English-speaking world, as its actual existence and possible definition were discussed at the third Université d’Eté de la Bande Dessinée last July. The problem lies in the fact that, like the term “bande dessinée” in French, it covers both a publishing format and a narrative project. To this, you have to add the fact that the perception of comic art (for lack of a better word) and its subsequent definition is very much dependent on the past experience of the reader himself — which lets him decide what enters in his notion of the medium, and what does not.

Maus has always been a good example of this: given to read to someone only exposed to the most mainstream stuff, the usual reaction is, “this is not a comic book.” The rejection being not about the medium itself (because it is obvious that the book is indeed using the same medium, with panels and speech bubbles and text and cartoons), but about the notion of what the medium could represent, as support for a narrative project. The founders of L’Association understood this well, and decided right away that to display the difference in subject matter of their books, they had to also express this difference in the publishing format. But by doing this, they in turn established a new reference, tying project and format, building a new “mythology” as Barthes would see it (see this essay on a similar subject). Subsequently, the big publishers have jumped on this bandwagon, copying the format, hoping that the content will follow. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but this muddles the picture, as suddenly you have to sort through the good and the bad books, having lost the clear distinction initially provided by the format.

Back to the “graphic novel” itself. In my understanding, the term describes a narrative project with somewhat literary ambitions that can be, at times, linked to a more-or-less specific publishing format. That’s fairly vague and includes a fairly dubious component (the “somewhat literary ambitions”) for which your mileage may vary, bringing me back to my introduction: if your past experience with comics only includes superhero comic books, then you will perceive Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Busiek’s Marvels to express these ambitions perfectly well; but if your past experience of comics is based on the output of, say, D+Q and Fantagraphics, then those two books will have trouble qualifying.

It may seem obvious, but a lot of the acerbic debates animating the blogosphere are rooted in this simple, basic difference of outlook and perception of the medium as a whole — the “whole” being, in this case, a very subjective notion that’s often just taken for granted.

Hi Xavier,
Thanks a lot for your email. Those are good points. But unlike Campbell, I’m kind of hoping that the myth is still malleable enough to be reclaimed from all the bullshit marketing and actually be employed in a somewhat useful way. Maybe I’m naïve, but I really find it quite interesting to retroactively attempt to apply it to certain kinds of comics produced since the birth of the medium in its modern incarnation, sometime in the early 19th Century. By charting the development of this trend, rather marginal through most of the 20th Century, one may discover interesting things about the comics as part of modern culture.

As to your identification of some kind of ‘literary ambition’ in this narrative project, I would tend towards adding an artistic one that searches for workable idioms beyond the traditions of cartooning, but obviously thinking outside the box visually doesn’t necessarily make a graphic novel. If it did, Mort Cinder would certainly replace Perramus as my Breccia pick for the list, for example. But that comic, for all its greatness, is simply too mired in traditional genre tropes associated with adventure comics, and is serial in a way that doesn’t harmonise with the term as I conceive of it. I guess my point is that the term is so tied to the commercial considerations at play, even in Eisner’s use of it, to be fully workable once one inspects the seams. Maybe Campbell is right in his pessimism, after all.

Urgh, does that Lanfeust “manga” ever look like a deplorable piece of shit.

Best,

Matthias

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Matthias,
While you have a point with the fact that the “ambition” of the narrative project should be both literary and artistic, I’m wondering if it could just be a case of “either/or” — and in rare cases, “and.” Or maybe it just depends on how you manage to twist the argument. Watchmen, for instance, is not particularly striking in terms of cartooning, although Dave Gibbons somewhat middle-of-the-road comic book style is interesting in light of its post-modern approach towards super-heroes. Therefore I’m not sure the ability of “searching for workable idioms beyond the traditions of cartooning” is so much of a requirement, or maybe I’m looking at it from too much of a draughtsmanship angle. Which leads me to think that maybe, my positioning of a “literary ambition” and yours of an “artistic” one might be better described as “narrative ambition” of a kind that would attempts something different and more worthwhile than the common fare. [Which brings me to the subtitle/tagline of du9, "l'autre bande dessinée", expressing in a way the difficulty of rounding up something that is, by essence, disruptive and exploratory, and therefore quite impossible to define.]

Is it sufficient to define a “graphic novel”? Not really, because more than a few daily strips do fit in there (Krazy Kat, Peanuts, etc.), indicating that the idea behind the concept of “graphic novel” is also one of a format — more or less self-contained, spanning at least a certain number of pages…

Again, my impression is that the “graphic novel” concept is one of disruption of generally accepted notions of what a comic book should be, and therefore is very dependant on the local context. Some general trends do emerge though — a preference for real-life inspiration (as opposed to the adventure/fiction approach of the mainstream), the affirmation of the author as an artist with a vision/project, the rejection of the commonly accepted “good drawing” styles… with none of these elements being compulsory or sufficient.

Of course, Eddie Campbell further complicates things by adding the “worth reading” comment. “Worth reading,” but how, for whom, in what context? The early attempts of Töpffer and Doré are interesting from their historical value, but might not be as relevant as some more contemporary pieces. Likewise, post-modern takes on superheroes will only mean something to people with at least a basic knowledge of the reference material, making it abstruse to the other readers. Personally, I believe more in setting up paths of discovery for potential readers, rather than creating absolute must-read lists that often overlook the knowledge needed to appreciate certain works. So, less than a few dozen graphic novels worth reading around for Mister Campbell? Well, we can call him either very lucky or very unfortunate. Very lucky, because he has so much yet to discover — or very unfortunate, because he hasn’t encountered those other books yet…
Cheers,
Xavier

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Hi Xavier,
Right. My point about ‘artistic ambition’ is naturally inseparable from whatever storytelling concerns at play in a given graphic novel. The reason I brought it in is to accommodate such things as Yuichi Yokoyama’s New Engineering, Mat Brinkman’s Teratoid Heights or Brian Chippendale’s Ninja that one would be hard pressed to describe as ‘literary,’ but nonetheless implicitly lay claim to the term, which would be poorer without them.

I agree that the term almost inavoidably carries connotations of format. It makes little sense to me to describe an ongoing strip that ran daily for fifty years as a graphic novel, even if its storytelling ambitions are similar to what we are talking about. Similarly, I find it problematic to apply the term to serialised genre works such as Tintin in Tibet or Franquin’s Idées noires, even if both exhibit ambitions that carry them beyond pure entertainment. It’s a bit of a grey area, but to me the self-contained status of the work is an important factor.

Regarding your comment about best-of lists, I would tend to agree, but my point is exactly that applying the term ‘graphic novel’ to a given set of approaches within comics is actually a great way of setting up “paths of discovery for potential readers,” plus it may contribute to our understanding of the medium as a cultural phenomenon.

Matthias,
Pondering the need for something to be self-contained, I think it somewhat falls back to the ambitions of the project we were referring to earlier. In the case of a serialized work, it would depend on the importance given to the constraints of the episodic aspect (which are usually imposed on the author) as compared to the project itself. In that regard, Black Hole is definitely a graphic novel despite having been serialized over close to ten years. Tintin au Tibet might have been published as a whole, but its place within a set series of “adventures” (a format in itself) sort of disqualifies it. Regarding the Idées noires, I would prefer to pose it as a question of cohesion, in the sense that the “novel” aspect implies a project explored across a larger scope.

These considerations bring me to another issue I have with best-of lists — not because I’m fundamentally opposed to them (they are indeed great places to discover new things and explore new directions, provided you recognize enough names on the list to know what you are getting into), but because suddenly deciding for this or that reason that some great work of “bande dessinée” as a whole shouldn’t be included in a specific category, well, that is unfortunate. Unless you are among specialists, and the context is well defined and explained, possibly listing what has been left out and why.

Maybe that would be an interesting way of elaborating your list: things that have been considered and then left out, not because of lack of quality or interest, but simply because they do not fit with a specific aspect of the “graphic novel” definition…
X.

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Xavier,
It’s true that cohesion seems like a good criterion, and it works most of the time, but it becomes a problem when one is dealing with short story cartoonists, above all Crumb, whom I singled out in my short text as impossible to fit in, except as a collaborator with Harvey Pekar. There simply isn’t a coherent book that adequately represents his towering importance for comics with the kind of ambition we’re talking about. And even if there were, it wouldn’t really be true to his work to call it a graphic novel. This is partly because he is rounded from the episodic school of humour cartooning that he read growing up (Barks, Stanley, Mad, etc.).

What to do with short stories? I’ve listed works by Jim Woodring and Shinichi Abe, for example, that can’t really be described as graphic novels, collecting as they do short comics published in different places over the span of a number of years. In this, they’re different from A Contract with God, which was conceived as a book from the outset, despite consisting of four short stories. But they still fit the profile of what I see as a coherent artistic project that works well as self-contained books. The list would be poorer for leaving them out. On the other hand, much the same can be said for Idées noires, which pretty much undermines that argument.

I guess one has to invoke historical circumstance in this instance. Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Tintin and Franquin’s work all represent deeply original, personal artistic visions, but not graphic novels because the term is defined in opposition to the formats, genres and idioms they were created within. We’re back to format, and — beyond that — cultural context. I still think it works, despite the obvious problems.

As to why it is interesting to mine this particular “tendency” in comics history, and to thereby leave out so many other worthy works, it is because it calls attention to a certain way of thinking about comics as an art form that can encompass larger stories and broader range of topics and do it in naturalistic and even realistic form. Although it has taken more than a century for this conception of the medium to start becoming commonplace, discovering earlier examples of this approach from earlier times can be a small revelation. To seek out artists whose work hasn’t traditionally been regarded as comics — eg. Masereel, Ernst, Salomon — and others whose cartooning has largely been forgotten — eg. Doré, Milt Gross — and to reappraise them in the light of the contemporary ‘graphic novel movement.’

For the longest time, it was a road not taken. But it was there all the time, and a fortunate few found it.

Matthias,
I must confess I have read only a few books from Crumb, but I see what you mean — and the same may apply to most of the output of Abe Shinichi, Tsuge Yoshiharu or Tatsumi Yoshihiro, for that matter. We fall into a situation where the narrative project is larger than a single piece, and where a multifaceted approach seems best fit to achieve those ambitions.

Yet, reading Un gentil garçon, a definite coherence emerges — helped by the editorial notes bringing some light onto Abe’s autofictional project. And even if some elements appear elsewhere in his works (I’m thinking of some stories in Paradis), this piece can be seen as sufficiently autonomous to be considered as a “graphic novel.”

Of course, this brings us back to the original reason why you would want to select bona fide graphic novels, rather than extending the field to comics with a narrative ambition that rises above the fray, without consideration made to cohesion, autonomy and manageable length. Should we favour the result, considering the format in which this ambition is expressed, or should we focus on this ambition itself, and therefore consider that we are exploring a work-in-progress?

No answer there on my part, but this is definitely a interesting topic…
X.

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Xavier,
The last question is an important one. I guess it boils down to the format actually being rather essential, because choosing it in itself implies certain ideas about what kind of work is being attempted. Historically this has, at least, given a strong contextual difference to the final result. Think Masereel vs. Krazy Kat, for example. The former unapologetically created novel-like narratives, aimed at an audience that appreciated contemporary currents in art, while the latter certainly incorporated visual ideas from modernist art and was in turn appreciated by intellectuals and artists, but at the same time unfolded within the parameters of the funny animal strip cartoon. There’s a difference in intent and tradition, even if the ambitions are similar in significant ways.

Regarding Crumb, one could perhaps imagine an anthology that imposed a kind of ‘intention’ or ‘direction’ on disparate short strips and thus created a ‘graphic novel’ as does Un Gentil garçon with Abe. But I don’t think it would work — the shortform, classically conceived strip is essential to his work (the existing compilations, Carload of Comix, Mr. Natural, etc. certainly don’t). He may have been an innovator and an iconoclast, but he remains a traditionalist. With Abe, I sense there is more of a unified ‘literary’ direction to his work, which fits the profile better. But I only know what little of his work has been translated into French, so I may be entirely mistaken. What are your thoughts on applying this quintessentially Western term, ‘graphic novel’, to the Japanese comics tradition?

m

Matthias,
With the Japanese comics tradition, the problem is that it seems to have evolved in reverse — maybe not exactly, but sort of. During the first half of the 20th Century, two formats coexisted: on one hand, episodic instalments in magazines (monthly, starting in 1914 with Kôdansha’s Shônen Club, then weekly starting in 1958), which were later collected in tankôbon format; on the other hand, the akahon format emerged in postwar in Osaka – small books (usually under 200 pages) focusing on self-contained stories. Tezuka’s seminar Shin-Takarajima was published in the latter format, as well as most of his early works in this period: Jungle Tatei was his first work to be published in episodic instalments starting in November 1950.

As episodic content took over (again) as the dominant form over after 1958, the kashibonya system (rental libraries) survived until the early 60s, and from this emerged the gekiga scene. Garo started publication in 1963, with Shirato Sampei’s Kamui-den as its centrepiece, and with a resolute opposition to the dominant chara-manga format initiated by Tezuka. Tezuka himself tried to counter Garo with his own COM, which ran from 1967 to 1973. Both magazines were targeting an adult audience with more serious works than the usual, child-oriented production. And this meant that the authors published in those books sometimes used classical literary forms adapted to the manga medium.

I’m far from a specialist in Japanese literature, but in her article on Tsuge published in The Comics Journal, Béatrice Maréchal writes: “It shares similar characteristics with a literary genre called I-novels, which was regarded as a very prestigious literary genre (as opposed to mere entertainment). [...] Not everything in this story comes from Tsuge’s life experiences, but for critics and historians, here was an I-comic, and with time Tsuge would become the main figure of this new genre.” Similarly, Hanawa Kazuichi’s Keimusho no Naka is reminiscent of a specific, classical form of journal used in Japanese literature, the name of which unfortunately escapes me at the moment.

Regarding the production of the alternative scene in Japan, serialized in Garo and AX, for instance, I’d say that most of it is close to the “graphic novel” ambition as we’ve discussed it so far, except for works that are obviously too long to fit in our definition. Kamui-den, at fifteen 500-page volumes or so clearly does not qualify, while I feel that Abe’s “Yasahii Hito,” [parts of which is collected in the French Un gentil garçon] serialized under that very title in Garo in a few instalments before being collected, definitely falls in the category. It might be a little more complicated for Tsuge, as even if his work consists mostly of short stories (Mugen no Hito [L'Homme sans talent] being an exception), they are usually part of larger “arc”, but I’m not sure those “arcs” represent the intentionality we seem to have put at the centre of our conception of the “graphic novel.”

There are some more clear-cut examples though — Matsumoto Taiyô’s GoGo Monster, for instance, published as a single volume, or Shiriagari Kotobuki’s YajiKita or Jacaranda, are all obviously graphic novels according to our criteria. In contrast, heavily episodic series do not qualify under these, even if their run was cut short for various editorial reasons: the underlying publishing structure is obviously a no-go for “graphic novel” ambitions.

Thinking about all this discussion (and having tried to explain what we were exchanging about to the Love of my Life), I guess we more or less fall back on intentionality/self-awareness of the author in producing something that would satisfy some literary/artistic ambitions, for lack of a better word.
Xavier

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Xavier,
That’s fascinating. My impression was also that this kind of thing very much started with gekiga, and for real with Tsuge’s watakushi-manga or ‘i-manga.’ But surely there are precedents, also pre-Tezuka?

The term as used in the West is inextricably linked to the modern distinctions of high and low art, and by extension elite and mass culture. Since comics have generally been unabashedly low art, almost to the bone marrow — and they have been extremely good at it — it makes sense that what is basically an artificial designation emerges to identify a type of comic that diverges into the higher cultural sphere. My question regarding the Japanese tradition would concern the differences between Japanese differentiation of high and low and that in the West.

I might be totally wrong, but it also seems to me that there’s less of a tradition, now, for this kind of comic in the otherwise much more diverse comics market, than there is in the West. Something I sense has to do with, as you say, industry conditions but probably also the aforementioned diversity of industrial comics as compared to the very homogenous ones of the West. Does that make sense?

m

Matthias,
Well, I think that the high art/low art opposition is something that is very Western in essence. Comics as a medium have struggled (in the US and in France) to receive cultural recognition, and has been met strong and outspoken detractors — Wertham comes to mind, but also somebody like Alain Finkelkraut in France. Japan has never had anything like that in relation to manga. There have been a few campaigns organized by the Japanese branch of the PTA in the 50s (like the “Campaign to Banish Bad Reading Matter”), but those fell on deaf ears. Manga were so popular that readers and publishers alike didn’t bother.

The arrest in 1989 of serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomu, who had raped and dismembered four pre-pubescent girls, tarnished manga’s image: Miyazaki’s apartment hosted a huge collection of anime, slasher movies and manga, and suddenly the media started worrying about all this. Yet, as the case evolved, it came to light that Miyazaki was a deeply troubled youth in a non-supportive family environment, and focus shifted towards the alienation felt by the otaku crowd, and not manga or anime per se. In the Shûkan Post, psychologist Okonoki Keigo then wrote: “The danger of a whole generation of youth who do no even experience primary two or three way relationship between themselves and their mother and father, and who cannot make the transition from a fantasy world of videos and manga to reality, is now extreme.”

This was followed by another attempt to ban comics in 1990 with “The Association to Protect Children from Comics,” which was backed by right-wing political groups, “But the total number of signatures they collected in their famous campaign [in 1990] is only equal to five one-hundredths of a percent of the population of Japan.” (as described here). While manga continued to be regarded as something positive, the otaku subculture caused some concern during over the following years, and it is only very recently (with the worldwide revalorization of nerd culture) that Akihabara has once again become a cool place to go. The Densha Otoko story in its numerous versions is a good example of the evolution of the perception of the less socially-favoured. Also note the buzz around the possibility that Aso Tarô, a manga fan, might become prime minister, or the fact that Japan has fully embraced the concept of “Japanese Gross National Cool” and the idea of a Soft Power, with manga and animation at the core of this cultural expansion.

Back to low and high art. The wide acceptance of manga as a valid entertainment form makes it harder to have a radical stance (like JC Menu’s in France, for instance) towards the medium and its potentialities. Moreover, the big publishers have put forward a wide range of publications, varying both in terms of target and circulation, that try and tap any available niche — including the more literary/ artistically ambitious: see Kôdansha’s Morning or Shôgakkan’s Ikki for this kind of experimental stuff. Both of course have accordingly low print runs (413.000 and 16.000 in 2007, respectively).

One thing that can be very frustrating, when discussing with Japanese author, is that very few seem to express any kind of active opinion regarding the medium and what they are trying to achieve with it. All the interviews I’ve seen or conducted, even with artists that do not fall into the mould (Shiriagari Kotobuki comes to mind, but also Tori Miki, Kaneko Atsushi or Mizuno Junko) end up with rather bland comments like “well, I do this because I like it.” I’m not saying they do not have an ambition or a project (usually, digging further yields at least some more information), but compared to what we expect of artists in the West, they are reluctant to express it.

I remember Frédéric Boilet introducing his “Manifeste de la nouvelle manga” in Tokyo, with Yamada Naito as the only Japanese author present, along with among Fabrice Neaud and David B. While Boilet was very outspoken regarding his relation to art (vs. work for hire, basically), and how he did not want to yield to editorial constraints, Yamada Naito’s reaction was typical: she didn’t agree with everything in the manifest, she had not been consulted about it in the first place anyway, and she didn’t quite adhere to all this, leading to an awkward moment. The divide was clear.

We have talked much about ambition, intentionality and the like, but this discussion about manga leads me to wonder: how much of this intentionality is real (something that would require a good knowledge of each author), and how much is perceived afterwards? And does one have a graphic novel, if the cohesion and autonomy only appear in retrospect?
Xavier

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Xavier,
Thanks for going into detail on this. I’m wondering though: even if comics haven’t been stigmatised to the same extent in Japan, it still seems to me significant that only in the 60s, and especially the 70s — ie. simultaneously with the US and Europe — did more naturalistic, personal or even ‘literary’ comics emerge. So while perhaps not ‘low’ culture in the same way as in the West, comics were — and largely remain — pop culture there as well. In this sense, I guess the graphic novel as we’ve been defining the term works well enough in a Japanese context, at least for our purposes (I’m sure the Japanese are utterly indifferent).

Regarding intent, I don’t think it matters. Only the final result does. And in any case, if these mangaka claim to not have thought much about these issues, surely it is more a reflection of cultural differences in how we talk about art and such, than most of them simply not reflecting on it. I mean, the work of Tatsumi, Tsuge, Abe or Maruo all seems pretty deliberate and uncompromising in the way it’s executed. They may not all intellectualise their own creative process, but something is surely going on.

m

Matthias,
Indeed, it seems that while there have been “proto-graphic novels” and some very early pioneers before WWII in Japan, the realization that the medium could support expression of literary/artistic character emerged in the 60s and blossomed in the 70s — the same as in the US and Europe. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this period was also a golden age for the low art end of comics, with Marvel thriving in the US, a lot of weeklies for boys in France and Belgium, and the manga weeklies expanding in Japan.

(And I agree on your point on “intent” — there is something going on, no matter how intentional it might be. I used to say that the book that the author produces and the book that the reader discovers are often two separate entities)

Another thing about Japan, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned in the course of this conversation (esprit de l’escalier, quand tu nous tiens…). While the opposition between low and high art does not seem to be prominent in the history of manga, there is, however, the deep rivalry that has existed between Tokyo and Osaka. Prior to the Meiji restoration, Osaka was the “first city” in Japan, something that changed when Tokyo became the capital, and Osaka second. The tension between the keeper of the tradition (Osaka) and the cultural upstart (Tokyo), between the modern urbanite (Tokyo) and the provincial (Osaka), seems to have been reflected in the manga industry too: on the one hand, the big publishers with their weekly magazines that Tezuka (himself from Osaka) embraced and helped develop; and on the other, the akahon-kashibonya artists that were thriving in and around Osaka.

So building on this opposition, it’s no surprise that the Garo crowd, coming from the latter, opted to take the cultural higher ground, opposed to what they felt was low art — Tezuka’s story-manga, stemming from Tokyo. A good example of this is Tezuka’s own attempts at imitating the gekiga, of trying to emulate their style and ambition. That is, low vs. high art, not as an arts hierarchy, but as expression of regional/cultural opposition.

Xavier

Images from Frans Masereel’s Mon livre d’heures, Hector Oesterheld and Alberto Breccia’s Mort Cinder, Mat Brinkman’s Teratoid Heights, Franquin’s Idées noires, R. Crumb’s “Cubist Bebop Comix”, Shin’ichi Abe’s Yasashii hitoand Yoshiharu Tsuge’s Muno no hito.

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