Why having some (etymological) perspective is a good thing...
A subject that rears its head from time to time in the world of comics has a fair bit to do with the story depicted above. It's from Will Eisner's A Contract from God, of course, a work that has commonly been regarded as the first modern graphic novel. The latter term, however, has often ruffled the feathers of those who write comics, since it strikes some as pretentious--as a term that tries to turn comics into something more than what they are.
But let's face it: the argument has never really been about the term "graphic novel." Rather, it's been about the term "comics." As pretentious as "graphic novel" might seem to some, the term "comics" only occasionally identifies what's actually happening in a comic book. The word "comics" is simply convention; it came into existence in the late 19th century and we've collectively kept it in use.
You'll hardly be surprised to discover that "comics" derives from "comic," and that the latter is the adjective we get from the noun "comedy." However "comedy" itself has an interesting etymology, as we see from Douglas Harper's Online Etymological Dictionary:
comedy (n.) late 14c., from Old French comedie (14c., "a poem," not in the theatrical sense), from Latin comoedia, from Greek komoidia "a comedy, amusing spectacle," probably from komodios "actor or singer in the revels," from komos "revel, carousal, merry-making, festival," + aoidos "singer, poet," from aeidein "to sing," related to oide (see ode).
If we put aside books whose authors would refer to them "graphic novels" and just focus on traditional, mainstream comics, is the term "comics" particularly useful in describing such works? Would you say that there is typically more of the comic than of the dramatic or tragic in a typical issue of The Avengers? or Batman? or apparently July's issue of Life with Archie for that matter?
Instead of getting bent out of shape about the multiplicity of terms with which we refer to comics, we should probably just embrace them. If you happen to think a work is pretentious because its author refers to it as a "graphic novel," think carefully about what is really bugging you.
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by Glen Downey, Comics in Education, www.comicsineducation.com
One of the most confusing things about comics is the plethora of terms that is used to describe it. I think it’s fair that if we are teaching our students about comics, graphic novels, or visual narratives, we should be clear what we mean by these terms. In English, we’ve traditionally chosen a “funny” word to describe what we’re discussing: comic. The word “comic” has an etymology that goes back to the ancient Greek word for “revel,” and which we use interchangeably either for someone who makes their living telling jokes or for sequential art. Below is a chart that can help us come to terms with some of the basic definitions of the genre.
A visual story told as sequence of drawings or images, either in color or black and white, relating a comic incident, adventure, mystery, or some other manner of narrative. It isoften published in serial form as a sequence of panels and gutters, having dialogue printed in balloons and narration in boxes.
Graphic Novel *
A book made up of comics content that usually features a longer narrative than that found in a comic book. The term is often intended to include fiction, non-fiction, and anthologized collections of single issue comics . It is distinguished from the term "comic book", which is used for comics periodicals.
A story that is told primarily through the use of visual media, including still photography, illustration, or video, and which can be enhanced with graphics, music, voice and other audio.
A term used for art that tells a story or narrative through a sequence or series of images, so a form of art rather than a style. Graphic novels, comics, and cartoons are all sequential art.
A term reserved for Franco-Belgian comics that have their own unique style and history. Literally deriving their name from the idea of “drawn strips,” they do not linguistically contain the idea of something humorous or funny as North American “comics” do.
A genre of cartoons and comic books originating in Japan and popularized by Osamu Tezuka and others whose style and form go back to the 19th century and ultimately derive from traditions in Japanese art.
* Some writers and illustrators of comics take great umbrage at the use of the term “graphic novel,” suggesting that it’s simply a way of dressing up “comics” and making them seem more pretentious than they need to be. Others prefer the term, believing that it specifically refers to comics collected in a longer format with a more literary sensibility akin to what we often find in manga. The important idea, however, is that these terms often contain, touch upon, or overlap one another. Both bande dessinée (like Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, etc.) and manga have their own distinctive styles, with the latter drawing inspiration for its characters from the exaggerated, wide-eyed characters of early 20th century American comic book characters, like Betty Boop.
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
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