Graphic Novels Suck!
One benefit of transitioning from the corporate world to the library world is that I get to work with and handle comics (or graphic novels as they like to call them.) on a daily basis. I mean I literally got paid to order and enter the ordering information for the first volume of Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron’s Miles Morales: Spider-Man comic today and then at my other job at a public library, I got to show a couple of kids (whose first library card I made.) where the Pokemon “comics” were. It’s pretty awesome, but there’s a bittersweet lining to it too.
And that lining is that in the minds of many of the people I interact with at work, whether that’s colleagues or patrons, comics are still solely for kids. Yes, I know it’s a cliche, but it was corroborated by Eric Reynolds, the co-publisher of Fantagraphics in an interview with Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg of the Cartoonist Kayfabe podcast where he talked about how well comics by Dav Pilkey or Raina Telgemaier were selling, but how those sales don’t translate to the adult or even the YA market. Kids comics (and manga) are booming, but unless you’re already into the world of comics, or it’s something evergreen like Watchmen, Maus, or Fun Home, it seems like comics are not a viable reading material for, say, post-college age adults.
And I hate that I don’t feel empowered to recommend comics and graphic novels to adults at my work unless they’re already checking one out. For example, I told a patron who checked out Manhattan Projects to check out Jonathan Hickman’s recent X-Men work and that we would probably be ordering the complete hardcover in the winter. However, if a patron likes spy novels, I probably won’t recommend Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Velvet or Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s The Coldest City. I think a lot of this is how the graphic novels are shelved. (In the teens and kids section at one job, and hidden away on the 2nd floor at another.) But it might be a personal thing too.
In my mind as a comics critic/fan and librarian-in-training, I have two wolves inside me. One is out here trying to champion comics as either serious literature or something that can appeal to everyone like young adult dystopian novels, airport novels, or Oprah’s Book Club nonfiction. (She makes some pretty great choices.) Then, there’s another, admittedly bad, wolf that relishes in comics’ history and reputation as the “bastard child of art and commerce” and doesn’t give a shit if the people around me look down on the medium or see it as only fit for children and people, who need help learning how to read. (This is hilariously reductive because comics require both verbal and visual literacy to be understood.) I also enjoy having a little fun and saying things like the latest issue of Batman has more literary value than anything James Patterson and Tom Clancy. (It’s true, especially when Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison were writing the book.)
What both wolves really like to come to blows over is the term “graphic novel”. The good wolf likes to emphasize it when talking to patrons because it reminds them of a currently respected medium. (The novel, which used to be seen as trash once upon a time.) The bad wolf likes to say that it’s a meaningless term, especially for trade paperbacks of ongoing series with multiple writers and artists. Both wolves agree that graphic non-fiction, memoirs, and medicine belong with their respective subjects and not with “graphic novels” because that makes so sense. Would you shelve a non-fiction book about anxiety next to J.D. Robb’s latest vapid thriller?
If I had my way, I would call anything that told a sequential story in both words and images a comic, plain and simple. However, graphic novel does have some marketing value even though some of the ways it’s used and overused are utterly banal. But, hey, if leads to a comic being checked out, I’ll use the word.
I have high hopes that as film and television shows of different genres that are comic book adaptations continue to be released, members of Generation Z keep reading comics even after their teachers and other adults say “They’re below their reading level” (This adds to their punk rock value, to be honest.), and cartoonists like Gene Luen Yang and Ed Piskor speak at prestigious book events (Aka they mainly focus on prose.) that comics will end up being just another item on the reading menu. Maybe, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will get elected president in 2024 and invite Alan Moore (He’ll probably decline.) and Dave Gibbons to chat Watchmen.
But, for now, I need to dig a little deeper and get better at recommending comics to people who aren’t children, teenagers, “geeks”, or fans of science fiction and fantasy. (I got a librarian at my work, who read Mort Weisinger-edited Superman books and 1960s Marvel comics as a child, seriously hooked on Saga.) I need to be a little less precious about semantics and use the term “graphic novel” as a tool for promotion instead of something that numbs my brain and makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. I need to understand that some people might not have the visual literacy levels to read and enjoy comics, which is okay.
And my final takeaway is that I need to read more manga. Seriously, I went to a Barnes and Noble in the Louisville, Kentucky suburbs and there were four full rows of manga. Because of the prevalence of public transportation and the lack of a Comics Code incident leading to one genre taking over the industry due to censorship, manga of all genres is easy to obtain in Japan, and maybe it’ll be like that the United States. But, for now, it’s time to crack open Uzumaki by Junji Ito. (Once I knock off all the others on my “to be read” list).