Friday, February 06, 2009

Explaining the Graphic Novel

As someone who is out there in the media and bookstore trenches, attempting to explain to people who didn't grow up reading graphic novels (or comics, or manga) what exactly they are, I think I've developed an explanation that I think helps make better sense of the whole conversation and if you're a fan of the format...could help to better explain it to someone who may not yet be familiar with it.

For many years now, literary critics, book reviewers and pseudo-intellectual bloggers have been pondering the graphic novel and where it fits into...or even if it fits into...serious discussion about literature.

Here's a current example of this kind of discussion, (by journalist Seth Sommerfeld for the online Gonzaga Bulletin), which is typically created for those who might new to the medium, by those who are vaguely familiar with it. Usually these kind of Graphic Novel 101 pieces, involves invoking one or more of the works that everyone knows since they have been successfully developed into other mediums, (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the upcoming Watchmen, 300, Sin City etc...). Within this competent piece, Sommerfeld restates the stock answer to the question, what is a graphic novel? "A graphic novel is a book-length comic. Everything one would expect in a traditional novel is present, they just happen to add illustrations to correspond with the story."

While much of that is indeed true, (and for the purposes of discloser...I've used a version of this explanation myself in interviews), I've grown to feel that much of that description is not only too simplistic, but just plain out and out misguided. First of all, what he's explaining here, is more akin to an illustrated novel, which adds illustrations every few pages or chapters, that "correspond with the story," and help flesh out the look of the characters for the reader. With a graphic novel, the illustrations don't just add to the story, they are integral to it. Ask anyone who's spent significant time reading or purchasing graphic novels (or comics) and more often then not, their buying decisions are based upon the artist (or art team), rather than the writer. There are exceptions of course, (Neil Gaimen, Alan Moore, Frank Miller to name a few), but typically if the art does not appeal to the reader he might as well be reading a novel (no pun intended)!

You see, when you break it down, a graphic novel is much closer in structure to the format of a screen play, than it is a novel. While you may find some GN authors who write their "scripts" similar to a novel outline, you find a greater majority create a document that looks and reads very much like a screenplay. This is because the creation of a graphic novel parallels the developmental course of a screenplay, more so than a novel.

With a novel you have the writer and then the editor (or team of editors) who help craft the story into a marketable form. But as far as the foundation of the story goes, (the creation of the characters, their descriptions, the settings, the mood), unless there is a ghost writer involved, the writer is the sole person responsible for the creation and vision of the work and he gets the lion share of the credit (not to mention the royalties).

With a graphic novel, you still start with the writer (and also most likely an editor) to craft the story into a usable form. But from that point, the progress of the work will veer into the direction of what happens with a screenplay. With a GN script, the writer is responsible for pointing out what is taking place not only in each scene, but on each page of the scene and depending how they work, sometimes in each individual frame within that page.* With some exceptions when a graphic novel script is completed, it then goes to an artist (some times one person, sometimes a team of people) who take the script and break it down into layouts based upon the descriptions in the script; then pencil illustrations are done; then fully inked renderings are created from these illustrations; and then (in some cases) fully colored-painted artwork. In that case the writer of the script is closer in definition to the writer of a screenplay, since this is the basis on which to total presentation is built. The penciler, inker and colorist (sometimes all the same person) are akin to the cinematographer, director of photography, casting director and that what the writer has indicated in the script, is now translated through their eyes onto the page. The process then comes full circle as the words are then added to the artwork, to create a whole that is now much greater then the sum of it's parts.

So unlike most novels, graphic novels are the result of the vision of more than one person (unless of course you work like me with Eyewitness...actively involved on almost every level). And like movies the final appearance of a graphic novel, can drastically deviate from the original story as envisioned by the writer in his script...because after all, we all visualize a bit differently. How many times have you read a good novel and had a real solid visual image of what a character looked like (based upon the writer's description) only to have him/her look dramatically different on film. That's similar to the impact that a casting director has on a screenplay and/or your pencil artist has on a graphic novel.

Now, when you have one person who is not only the writer, but also the artist and editor of a GN project, you have what could be related to in the world of cinema, as an indy that is driven by the creative vision of one man who not only writes the screenplay, but is also director and cinematographer...rather than an ensemble cast of participants.

So the next time you hear someone trying to talk down graphic novels, because as a literary form, they do not adhere to the basic tenets and accepted practices of a prose novel, politely correct them, that graphic novels are more closely related to movies than they are novels, (which is why they are so easily adapted to that format, since a lot of the work of the director, cinematographer and director of photography has already been done), and so should be judged accordingly! You'll not only most likely "smack down" a literary snob, but you'll sound darned prolific doing it!

Robert James Luedke
Author and Illustrator

*There are basically two different formats most GN writers work in...the Marvel Style and Full Script. Peter David, in his seminal work, Writing for Comics, explains it this way, "In the Marvel Style, (Made popular by industry icon, Stan Lee), the story is presented in a general manner , like a short story written in present tense. It includes some, but not necessarily all, dialog and gives the artist much latitude in how he visually paces the story. Once the artwork is done, the writer then scripts the story, adding dialogue, captions and sound effects. When you write in full script, you're telling the artist everything that's going to be on the you want it framed, at what angle, what's in the background, what's the character's expressions, where are their their side or in their pocket, what's the weather like, etc..."


Anonymous said...

Hey, this is Seth, the one who wrote that article. I just wanted to say that yes, it was the rather generic archetype for articles on the subject. It was simplistic. I read graphic novels, so I know that. But you also must realize the audience that I'm writing for. Gonzaga is the least pop culturally diverse place I've ever been, and I'm from Montana. My goal was more to inform people that it is a genuine for of literature more than get into the intricacies of the subject. I'm only allotted so many words, so I must go with the broad stroke in the hope that people will pick up on it and discovers the details for themselves.

R. Luedke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
R. Luedke said...

Thanks for checking in Seth. But don't feel the need to explain yourself or your article.

Having it published when it was, was simply a right place/right time moment for this blog, which I had been working up for about a week. Your piece just served the purpose of being a nice springboard to the point I was using as my foundation.

I did mention that I thought it was "very competent", and I think you did a good job acheiving your stated goal. I was just taking that explaination to the next level, because when comparing apple to apples, I think a lot of people just misunderstand the artform (and potential for this medium).

One question though...Gonzaga U. is less culturally diverse than Montana? Geez!