Words and Pictures | Newberry

Words and Pictures

            Once upon a time, there the comic book.  Many of these were meant to be funny, but the name, I think, came about because the main trend in the 1930s was for reprints of comic strips.  Once publishers realized that original material could be cranked out faster and cheaper, artists and authors branched into longer narratives, and the comic book became an anthology of short stories done in pictures.  And, like the pulp magazines of about the same era, they developed into genres: the western comic book, the romance comic book, the horror comic book, the sports comic book, the religious comic book, the science fiction comic book, and, of course, the superhero comic book.

            Comic books were considered, also like the pulps, a low and disposable form of entertainment, seen as the province of children under fourteen and older people of limited mental ability.  (One Book Fair volunteer recalled that her mother never allowed her comic books because Yogi Berra read comic books.)  There was an anti-comic book crusade in the late 40s and early 50s which did the reputation of the medium no good.  A code of good behavior was put together by the industry, for the good of the children, which reinforced the idea that comic books were intended for a juvenile audience.  Cracks started to develop in this code in the 1960s, as they did in other parts of western culture.

            Meanwhile, across the seas, experiments were being made in longer comic book stories.  Many of these were serials that had their installments collected into larger volumes and sold as a complete story.  Tintin had great success with this, and naturally begat imitators.  A few American exports—Hagar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey—starred in novel-length comic books in Europe.   The Japanese comic book, or manga, started to work its way into the American consciousness, those novel-thick volumes which were published every week. 

Some American publishers, especially those with superhero sagas to tell, tried their hand at full-length narratives in one volume.  These cost more money, and had an image problem.  The phrase “big comic books” gave entirely the wrong impression to audiences still laboring with the ghost of Yogi Berra.  After several terms were tried out, “Graphic Novel” was accepted as the general classification of a story in comic (as in “comic book”, not as in “Funny”) form.  The graphic novel isn’t EXACTLY everywhere yet.  Some people still stare at it and wonder how a comic book got so out of hand.  (I tried to explain to one of them, “It’s a graphic novel” and she demanded, “You mean it’s dirty?”  The word “graphic” carries some baggage, too.)  Still, if you look at the Pulitzer Prize (Art Spiegelman’s Maus), the reviews in the New York Times, the textbooks on how to read them, and the seminars (some at the Newberry) you have to admit it looks like this narrative form is going to be a part of the literary scene.

            So where is the “Grasphic Novel” section at the Book Fair?

            Well, there isn’t one.  “Graphic Novel” is a form, not a subject and I have opted to sort graphic novels as if they were any other books.  Yes, there is precedent for having a subject defined by its format: Poetry, for example.  But (intentionally) funny poetry goes into Humor instead of Poetry, and that mystery Martha Grimes wrote in verse goes in Mystery.  So is Max Allan Collins’s: Road to Perdition in Mystery, while Buck Godot: Zap Gun For Hire is in Science Fiction, and all those exceedingly depressing autobiographies are to Biography (Do happy people ever write autobiographical graphic novels?).  It’s the same thing I do with manga and comic books when they come in.

            I know this puts you to a little extra work to find ‘em.  But think of the extra work it gives me, during the Book Fair.  I have to think of something polite to say to every volunteer who asks, “Shouldn’t all these comic books be in the children’s section?”

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