Graphic novels are not a new phenomenon. One could argue that cave paintings are a primitive form! I have seen reprints of wordless graphic novels from the early twentieth century, and in my experience with library collections and bookstore browsing, I have encountered books published over the course of the past few decades. Perhaps what is new is only that graphic novels are being crossed over with what have been traditionally considered pulp fare, such as superhero comics and similar manga series. They are being accepted into mainstream literary culture, likely a reflection of a population that is much more prone to visual learning than in previous years, due to films, television, and online content. Naturally, this mainstream acceptance has caused a backlash against the graphic medium from the educational, literary, and cultural worlds.
In response to reading Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, as well as my experience with other graphic novels, I find that negative reactions to this medium are a result of three main debates being waged disguised as one. The first debate is whether or not these books have literary merit; the second is whether or not they are good for literacy levels; and the third debate is whether or not they are another form of novel.
The first two debates are independent of the medium, at least from my perspective. Literary merit is based on content and language and a host of other things, and thus varies from book to book. All I say about this is that a book’s format has nothing to do with how good it is. Likewise, literacy is a multi-faceted concept. It takes a different kind of literacy to understand a graphic novel than it does to understand a novel. If adults are concerned about what children and young people are reading, they ought to compare apples to apples: sentence structure in graphic novels must be examined against sentence structure in a novel, for example. Again, this varies from book to book.
What I ultimately believe is that the debate ought to be about whether or not graphic novels and novels are the same. I do not believe that they are. They are as different as poetry is from prose — I would not argue that Shakespeare’s works are novels! While Shakespeare may be published in a book format, it is still not a novel like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and neither are graphic novels like Essex County. Are they all works of literature? Yes. Are they all works of fiction? Yes. Do they all tell a story? Yes. Do they convey language? Yes. Would they all be considered books to read? Absolutely! But they cannot all be evaluated on the same scale.
To me, the term “graphic novel” is a misnomer. Honestly, the first time that I saw it as a label in a bookstore, I thought it referred to erotica, as “graphic” is often used as a euphemism for “work that is excessively gory or erotic.” A novel is also a specific type of fictional work. Merely using “graphic book” might be too general or misleading, but I do not think that there is another adequate term other than “image-based fiction” (or non-fiction). I also think that both libraries and bookstores tend to lump many mediums and genres together as graphic novels: in a given section, I can come across superhero comics, pulp manga, manga novels, graphic short stories, graphic novels, graphic non-fictional works, biographical or journalistic works, and cartoons. These works appeal to different audiences entirely!
If I were to re-develop the above “graphic novel” section in a public library (or bookstore), I would examine the genres within the section more closely and have the items shelved with like items of the non-graphic variety. Non-fictional works would be classified with the non-fiction: Maus and Persepolis would be shelved with books about the Holocaust and the Iranian Revolution, for example. Meanwhile, the fictional works would be separated into comics and graphic novels. I would argue that the latter be shelved with the regular fiction that it corresponds to (perhaps with a label on the spine, as some libraries do for short stories or poetry-based novels). The former would have their own section, probably called “Comics and Manga.” Any of these items would be appropriately divided between adults, teens, and children depending on the intended audience of the book.
Overall, I think all books have to stand on their own two feet, independent of their medium. More widely, I think that applies to all works of art and especially to all stories. Essex County is a great story — perhaps a Canadian classic — but it is not a novel. To equate it as a novel is to forget that novels have their own style and literary criteria. I think it is definitely good to read and would recommend it. Graphic novels are finally being embraced as mainstream literature, and they should do so in their own right, not trying to pass as something else.