On the Edge: So Long, Superman
Writer's Digest, December 2006
Alison Bechdel is finally famous. Since 1983, she’s developed a cult following, thanks to Dykes to Watch Out For, her highly acclaimed fictional comic strip. Syndicated in 50 alternative newspapers and collected in a book series with a quarter of a million books in print, DTWOF has been called “one of the pre-eminent oeuvres in the comic genre period” by Ms. magazine.
    But until the June 2006 publication of her graphic memoir, Fun Home, Bechdel was unknown to the mainstream public—a subcultural figure who, as she says, was spending her career laboring away in the trenches.
    “Because graphic novels are hot, I was able to sell my memoir to a big publisher who did incredible publicity – because it was their first graphic novel – and it’s really paid off,” Bechdel says. “The book is selling really well and getting a lot of mainstream attention.”
    Houghton Mifflin, publisher of Fun Home, isn’t the only mainstream publisher jumping on the graphic novel bandwagon. Other big players, such as HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster, have introduced imprints dedicated to the form. Bookstores and libraries are acknowledging a growing readership, including more women, plus middle-age adults who grew up reading superhero comics.
    But there’s serious debate as to what the term “graphic novel” really means. And, for some, there’s concern about its recent popularity, especially as more artists and writers move from small, independent publishers to larger houses where there’s a fear that creative freedom will be quashed.

What is a graphic novel?
The term “graphic novel” was invented to help reinvent the monthly, disposable comic book. In the driest sense, it’s a book that uses words and art to tell a fiction or nonfiction story. Often the artist also is the writer. But sometimes there are numerous people involved, including a penciller, inker and writer. The form’s highly adaptable; the format can be successfully applied to fiction and nonfiction. But many people consistently argue over the definition’s specifics.
    “The ‘graphic novel,’ a term coined in comics in the 1970s, has become a popular term in the mainstream press, allowing coverage of comics to appear in places where it might not have before,” writes John Jackson Miller – a comic book writer and editorial director at F+W Publications (the company that publishes this magazine) – in 2007 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market’s comics section.” But a graphic novel – correctly defined as a complete comics work (usually of more than 64 pages) appearing for the first time in a single square-bound volume – is actually a rarity in comics publishing.”
    Comic insiders sometimes use the term “trade paperback” to refer to collections of reprinted material and “original graphic novel” to refer to work as defined by Miller. Other terms include “sequential art,” “illustories” and “picot-fiction.”
    So why do so many publishers and media outlets continue to use such an ill-defined term? “It was created to be a snotty pseudonym for comics, because comics needed to be sold in bookstores – the industry wasn’t supporting itself,” says Anne Elizabeth Moore, editor of the new Best American Comics series. “The term ‘graphic novel’ was created to refer to a very specific kind of comic book, something novel-esque, and now it’s used on everything that appears in book form in order to legitimize it in some way.”

A short history
The trade paperback version of Will Eisner’s 1978 A Contract With God includes the phrase “A Graphic Novel” on the cover. But many argue that the graphic novel existed long before Eisner’s award-winning work.
    “Comics in book form have existed for at least two centuries, enjoying sporadic flurries of success, such as vogue in 1930 for wordless ‘pictorial narratives’ sparked by Lynd Ward’s God’s Man in 1929,” writes Paul Gravett in his book, Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know.
    But the form really didn’t get serious attention until Maus, by Art Spiegelman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. “I think the first thing that came out and really attracted the serious reader was Maus,” says Gerry Donaghy, a backlist inventory supervisor at Powell’s City of Books and a comics' fan. “In the 1980s, you had two comic scenes: the superhero, spandex stuff and the edgy, underground stuff.”
    Today large publishing houses are taking note of the “edgy, underground stuff,” and many are realizing that almost any subject can be presented in graphic form. For example, Hill and Wang is publishing Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s graphical adaptation of The 9/11 Report.

A changing, creative form
When assigned the Best American Comics series editor gig, Moore had two months to read practically every comic published between January 1, 2004, and August 15, 2005. “There’s been a great leap forward in terms of using visuals creatively, not sticking to the standard panel-caption-word-bubble thing,” Moore says. “That really allows for new storytelling modes.”
    Bechdel agrees. “It’s an incredibly rich form that’s really untapped,” she says. “I couldn’t have written Fun Home in any other way.” Bechdel’s work is richly layered, the words and images in constant tango with each other. “There’s this magical fusion between the two strands,” Bechdel says.
    Comic writers and artists have long used independent publishers as a way to avoid creative stifling. While Bechdel has only glowing things to say about her experience with Houghton Mifflin, she admits to being mistrustful at first. But mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s latest graphic work, Lost Girls, which took them 16 years to make. (Graphic novels are notorious for taking a long time to complete – Bechdel spent seven years writing and illustrating Fun Home.) Many claim Lost Girls is a work of art. It’s also very sexually explicit. The book is the most expensive undertaking Top Shelf Productions – one of the few comic publishers to publish original graphic novels almost exclusively – has ever done. The set of three, 112-page oversized hardcover volumes, sealed in a slipcase and shrink-wrapped, costs $75.

Popularity and its toll
While Lost Girls is definitely an adults-only item, many age-appropriate graphic novels are being published and purchased by a preteen and younger audience, Donaghy say, adding that many middle-age adults who “never really jettison comics as a kid thing,” such as himself, are buying graphic novels, too. Milton Griepp, CEO of ICv2.com, a news website for pop culture retailers, aggress that this is an important, underlying trend. Kids are getting a stamp of approval from their parents, Griepp says. “It’s a good thing.”
    Bechdel says publisher acceptance has helped attract readers, too. People who’ve been creating graphic narratives for decades suddenly are being taken seriously, she says. “This has expanded the whole field. The more different kinds of work that get produced, the more different kinds of people are attracted and producing it.” Bechdel notes women in particular.
    Anne Elizabeth Moore does worry about the amount of work that’s being published simply because it’s popular. “It’s like when Green Day signed with Reprise Records,” she says. “All of a sudden, things went crazy. [Labels were] signing every punk band they could find. A lot of people got hurt like that, after being shoved in the spotlight.” Moore is quick to add that at the same time, a lot of “great people” are now making a living doing the work they love to do. “I think that it’s something the industry has been striving toward for a really long time.” WD

—story by Kara Gebhart Uhl
—Alison Bechdel photo by Greg Martin

Super Markets

Most publishers review only projects; they don’t review art without a story, or vice versa. In most cases, writers who need artists must create a team before submission. Plus, “no matter what they may say for the public, few publishers are interested in looking at untried freelance material,” says Maggie Thompson, Comics Buyer’s Guide editor. “The usual route these days is for a creator to produce his or her own material for a time – usually on the Web – and then use that as a portfolio. Given the public nature of this sort of tryout, it can even result in the publishers going to the creator, rather than the other way around.”

Drawn & Quarterly

Fantagraphics Books


SLG Publishing

Top Shelf Productions