In the following guest post, Senior Creative Writing major Michael Guy and assistant professor Dr. Darolyn Jones discuss graphic novelist and comic book writer Mark Waid’s presentation about his profession in a recent ENG 414 class.  In the post, they use Waid’s presentation as a jumping off point for a brief history of the graphic novel form and an analysis of its literary importance. 

“Should the graphic novel be regarded as literature?”

“Are graphic novels anything more than overly long comic-books?”

“What literary merit (if any) do graphic novels contain?”

“Should graphic novels and graphic novel authors be treated with the same literary reverence we treat great contemporary authors today?”

The graphic novel has been a consistently growing literary medium that dates back to the 1920s. For those unfamiliar with what a graphic novel consists of, it is a narrative that uses art and uncommon story structure (usually implementing stylistic traits similar to the usual comic book format) to accompany text.  Similar to the function of the picture in children’s picture books, the art in the graphic novel plays an integral role with the text in telling the story.  For many years, literary critics and book-consumers alike turned away from the graphic novel, thinking it to be a lesser form of literary writing best suited for adolescent males only. Over the past two decades, the “graphic novel” has been able to distinguish itself while simultaneously assimilating into the coveted realm of respected literature.

The term “graphic novel” is broad and for good reason. Any genre can be applied to the graphic novel design. Author Will Eisner (arguably) kick-started the graphic novel movement in 1978 with his work A Contract with God: And Other Tenement Stories.  The structure, artwork, and thematic material of the novel didn’t resemble its comic-book counterparts of the time. Contract presented a short set of stories that addressed the hardscrabble realities associated with tenement living in the Bronx, circa the 1930s. The novel was praised by most mainstream critics and the graphic novel had one of its first successes. Since the late 1970s, the graphic novel medium has given us authors and artists such as Alan Moore (From Hell, Watchmen), Frank Miller (The Spirit, 300), Art Spiegelman (Maus), Marjarine Satrapi (Persepolis), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Lynda Barry (One!Hundred!Demons!), and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic) to name a few. On October 4, 2011, contemporary graphic novelist and comic book author Mark Waid visited Dr. Lyn Jones’ English 414 class to discuss the state of the graphic novel in today’s marketplace.

Mark Waid has been a prominent fixture on the comic book circuit for the past twenty years. He has written for many widely popular superhero franchises such as Spiderman, Superman, and Justice League, and his graphic novel, Kingdom Come, is one of the most successful comic collections to date. Waid visited our class to accompany a presentation over the many elements associated with graphic novel writing. Waid’s enthusiasm for his profession showed as he enlightened our class on the various means a writer or fan or artist can read/publish their work via today’s online technology/marketplace.  Basically, the art-form is readily adapting to today’s marketplace where beautiful, drawn-out novels become expensive to produce.

Waid fielded questions from students, many of whom weren’t entirely familiar with the many different categories of books found in graphic novels. After showcasing several graphic novels to the class, we began to see how it wasn’t all Superman and The Avengers.  I knew of a handful of popular graphic novels but did not understand how this form of prose spanned across the entire spectrum of literary genres. After doing a bit more graphic novel based research, I found that over the past ten years the graphic novel has grown in immense popularity and tackled various issues not commonly found in “comic-books.”  Author Alison Bechdel’s 2007 graphic novel/memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic tackled the subtle (but emotionally complex) issues dealing with elements of family dysfunction. The Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley has been ever growing in popularity since its 2004 publication, mostly due to its unique combination of angst and alternative flavor with Manga inspired illustrations.  There is also 2007’s Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol which deals with a lonely girl struggling with life who finds the friend she needs—who happens to be a 100 year-old ghost. These books (and more like them) have helped the graphic novel reach a whole new audience that 20 years ago wouldn’t have given a graphic novel a second glance.

As the presentation concluded, Mark Waid left the class with the sentiment that we shouldn’t look at a “graphic novel” as anything but a novel. This is simply a medium of story-telling that shouldn’t be constrained by pre-conceived notions of what we (the readers) expect out of a novel. The graphic novel’s future in the literary world seems, fortunately, to be firmly intact.

Mark Waid’s website can be found HERE

For a list of must-read Graphic Novels, click HERE