News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Book review: The US Graphic Novel by Paul Williams

reviewed by Paul Levitz 

Paul Williams. The US Graphic Novel. Edinburgh University Press, 2022. $29.95 (Paperback). ISBN 9781474423373. Critical Insights in American Studies series.

 Paul Williams’ survey of The US Graphic Novel suffers from his lack of commitment to a definition of the subject.  The boundaries of the forms of graphic literature and a strict categorization of the various niches and their overlap is a taxonomy that has yet to achieve any general agreement in the academy or among practitioners. However, in order to advance the study of this evolving and interesting form, it is necessary to make at least a hypothesis of definition.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s classic comment, “I know it when I see it” seems even less adequate to define the graphic novel than the pornography he was referring to when he made the remark.

 As studied through various disciplines, the concept of a graphic novel changes.  Williams at times seems to define it simply as an illustrated text of a certain length (going as minimal as 48 pages, which while typical of the European album has rarely been considered definitional in the United States) in a book format.  Lacking boundaries, he digresses into considering works like Don Freeman’s It Shouldn’t Happen in which there is no integration between the illustrations and textual material as a graphic novel.  The subject matter is serious, and if we apply the lens of defining the graphic novel by criteria of literature which considers the human condition, it would certainly be a worthy step in the evolution.  On the other hand, considered as part of the nascent field of comic studies, it is largely if not totally irrelevant.

 In my worlds, I accept two definitions: as a practitioner or when teaching the business of publishing, the conventional marketplace wisdom: the graphic novel is any content in a book format that utilizes the techniques of sequential storytelling where the art and text (if any) are integrated rather than segregated.   When teaching the graphic novel as literature, I look to content that rises above genre to tell non-formulaic fiction or non-fiction with the potential to touch the soul, and is packaged in a book form, again using integrated sequential art and text.  This definition removes my old friend Arnold Drake’s It Rhymes With Lust from the evolution, and marks Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book as the beginning of the ‘modern’ American graphic novel.  In both situations, I focus on work first published in America, not because the rest isn’t important, but to avoid over-complicating the analysis and burdening it with difficult to prove assumptions about access creating influence.  I place no importance on these working definitions beyond their utility in my work or teaching and defer to the academy to eventually define terms better…but the absence of any tentative definition in Williams’ book seems a critical flaw.

Where Williams is most interesting is when he places the evolution of comics and the graphic in context with other media and an international perspective, acknowledging that developments in the United States are not the only ones relevant to this process.  Various works that he explores at some length such as Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 deserve more consideration than usually given, and his perspectives are illuminating.  Developed as a theory and focused on, this could have been a very worthwhile book.  As presented, it mixes with a great deal of material that has already been more deeply explored by many others and distracts us by a biased perspective (is it really more relevant to the evolution of the U.S. graphic novel that Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina was longlisted for the Booker Prize than that Art Spiegelman’s Maus actually was awarded a Pulitzer Prize?).

There’s an intrinsic challenge in conflict between the history of a media form (comics), its near-relatives (those works which utilize some of the classic tools but not all, or not in the classic manner), and other forms that have their own evolution (illustrated books).  One of the most joyous aspects of the way that current technology has permitted the breakdown of these boundaries is the explosion of barely categorizable works (is Lauren Redniss’ Radioactive to be considered a graphic novel when it is non-fiction, certainly not comics, and utilizes visual tools outside of the conventions?).  The success of the graphic novel as a marketing term encompassing a diverse range of visual literature, journalism and non-fiction is one of the fascinating components fueling a creative explosion in the United States and elsewhere, along with the empowerment of artists being able to reach audience with fewer or weaker gatekeepers, vastly reduced or eliminated preproduction expenses, and access to software enabling easy merging of images. 

The subject matter Williams covers is fascinating, and he finds topics where he offers insights not frequently duplicated in the scholarly literature.  But the overall quality of the volume is dramatically limited by his lack of definition.  To quote Anne Enright, an author who did win the Booker prize that Williams respects so much, “All description is an opinion about the world.  Find a place to stand.”

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