Perusing Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion, I read that Neil Gaiman reacted to being told his works weren’t comic books but graphic novels by stating, “…all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” A reclamation of terms. Ugh. I hate that, a kind of cultural gentrification. The Sci Fi channel changing its name to “Sy-Fy.” “Speculative fiction” instead of “science fiction,” to make it sound more literary. The lit canon wars all over again, joy.
But there’s an inherent problem with “comic books.” The term itself just doesn’t sit well. I mean, “comics.” The little pictures don’t go do stand up for you. My grandmother calls them “the funnies.” There’s nothing funny about the subject matter of Maus, though any good story moves through its moments of deep humor to sorrow to hope, to where ever else the tale takes us, the readers. But the point of them isn’t humor. Superhero stories aren’t supposed to be just tales to laugh over. They can be light, full of wish fulfillment, but they aren’t just for laughs.
While “graphic novel” may seem at first like one of those gentrification techniques, to my eye, it’s just calling a spade a spade. A graphic novel collects all the shorts from a long story arc into one place, or publishes one long visual tale in one spot. It’s graphical, even though it may not be novel-length in the “true” sense (novels are a minimum of 50,000 words; sorry kiddies, Heart of Darkness was technically a novella… fact is, though, it’s just plain good, so you can just call it what you want). And in all honesty, “graphic novel” sounds less pretentious than “sequential art.”
In this case… I don’t really see what the problem is. Not only does the term “graphic novel” call it like it is, but it makes room. Room for stories other than superhero fictions and Sunday morning giggles. Room for stories about real people and invented ones. Room for memoirs, space flights, archaeologists, boring day jobs and the struggle to reconcile where we want to be with where we are, days indoors during the rain, and super mutant battles. There’s room in the term for all of it. The term takes the key from its keepers and turns it over into all our hands.
I’ll admit, there are other points to address. “But what about the really short tales?” Yes, the ones that are only a few pages long? Just a couple of strips? A single 28 or 32 page volume? I have a solution for that, too. I borrowed it from film. I just call them “shorts.” Or if you want to stick your pinkie in the air, “graphic shorts.” Which makes me want a pair of comic-print boxers.