Eisner-nominated creator Rob Vollmar returns to Ninth Art with a new four-part essay that aims to thoroughly address one of the great questions still troubling the comic industry. What exactly is a graphic novel?
06 October 2003

A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, "Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others saying that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?

The Buddha answered, "Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, 'Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind and show them an elephant'. 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, 'Here is an elephant,' and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?'

Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And then men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was like a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a granary; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar, the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

Then they began to quarrel, shouting, 'Yes it is!' 'No, it is not!' 'An elephant is not that!' 'Yes, it's like that!' and so on, until they came to blows over the matter.

Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

Just so are these preacher and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus."

Then, the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this uplifting verse.

"O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing."
(Udana 68, 69)

It doesn't take a bold visionary to survey the landscape of the last thirty years of comics activity in the West and observe that both the medium and the industry that produces and distributes it has been radically changed in the interim. While changes in the distribution system and presumed age of the target audience have certainly had their own unique ramifications related to the public perception of comics, no one emerging idea has had quite the catalytic effect as that of the graphic novel.

What measure of respectability comics has been able to garner in its protracted transition from a medium associated with juvenilia to one seeking an equal footing with the great artistic traditions of the world has come on the coattails of this seemingly revolutionary form in the last twenty five years. It took a graphic novel to win the Hugo (WATCHMEN) and a graphic novel to be awarded a Pulitzer (MAUS) or the esteemed Guardian First Book Prize (JIMMY CORRIGAN).

'No one emerging idea has had quite the catalytic effect as the graphic novel.' Yet, for all the glory and critical attention paid to its essential contribution to the evolution of comics, there is a scarcity of accord on what a graphic novel might actually be. Comics theory, at this time, is irrigated by the shallowest puddle of writing known to any of the nine arts, and while few critics are willing to allow the question, "What is a graphic novel?" to pass without sharing an opinion, no one definition offered has been accepted as authoritative by the others in such a fashion that it is not still a necessity for each individual critic to state their own, localized definition in order for the conversation to even begin.

In surveying the landscape of critical opinion on the matter, theory on the graphic novel has followed the contour of modern criticism in general by settling into a number of consecutively developing, and ultimately adversarial, schools of thought. The seat of this discord rests not in the undeniable supremacy of one school or one philosophy over the others. It is instead each given approach's insistence that its own existence and perception of truth is inviolable at the expense of the others, perpetuating an uneasy sense that as everyone can not be right (in fact, the only thing they all agree on), then surely, no one is.

To overcome this critical conundrum and understand the advantages and disadvantages to each approach's response to the question, "What is a graphic novel?" we must explore each stage of critical development with a new tool, the integral eye, which will allow us to correlate and synthesize the information as duly reported by our four blind critics and finally, discover the elephant.

Integral Theory

To understand the urgency in doing so, an indulgent moment must first be taken to discuss the underpinning of the integral argument as coined by philosopher and critic Ken Wilber. In his book, EYE OF SPIRIT, Wilber succinctly states the basis of his Integral Theory of Art, positing that, "the nature and meaning of Art is thoroughly holonic. Like every other entity in the Universe, Art is holonic in its nature, its locus, its structure, its meaning, and its interpretation. The art work consists within contextx within contexts endlessly."

The term holon was originated by systems theorist Arthur Koestler to describe the state of being both a whole thing and also part of something larger, depending on the perspective or vantage from which it is seen. Wilber's Integral Theory holds that everything in the knowable Universe is holonic in nature, save that which transcends (the prime urge which set the Universe in motion but we probably won't need that kind of authority to resolve the rather narrower questions set before us here).

Wilber suggests throughout the body of his writings that holons generally behave (and if they do not, they are dysfunctional and self-terminate) in accordance with a series of observable tenets (a comprehensive discussion of which I will mercifully save in full for a later date) that can be, for the confines of this discussion, truncated to but a few.

'There is a scarcity of accord on what a graphic novel might actually be.' Holons emerge. All things are in a state of becoming. Comics, as the core holon that emerged eventually into comic books and then into graphic novels, did not appear in medias res, but was part of a process that resulted in the rejoining of two long errant holons that were, once upon antiquity, one, namely the word and the image. The precise moment that it occurred is not nearly as important (or knowable for that matter) as the fact that it happened at all. That it did, however, is something upon which we all can agree.

Holons transcend. When they do, they become something more that also, necessarily, includes what they were minus the inherent shortcomings that had kept it in the state it was. Graphic novels share vital components with the comic books from which they emerged but also offer advantages (density, sophistication, audience perception of value and substance) that comic books could not. Recognizing this, of course, says little about the newly inherited set of limitations that the graphic novel itself now faces in its own emergence that the comic book had never to consider.

Holons as they emerge through the process of transcendence and inclusion form holarchies. These structures that themselves emerge from the pattern of emergence gradates upwards towards Integration. Simply put, the higher critical holons regarding the graphic novel will inevitably include more possibilities than those that preceded it until the idea itself will merge with nearby dynamic relatives to produce something singularly new that cannot be mistaken for merely a graphic novel or any other of its component elements.

Criticising Art

What role criticism played before the proliferation of the written word is next to impossible to assess. What we do know is that the first generation of critical writers emerging from Ancient Greece were not only deeply influenced by the oral traditions of the generations before them, but had also a profound influence on Western culture for millennia to follow. Foremost among them, is, of course, Plato, whose most famous writings on Art and its place in society were, in fact, a mixture of the teachings of Socrates as filtered through Plato's own.

The Platonic School of criticism prioritised mimesis, or the skilful reproduction of Nature's ideal forms, as the primary attribute of successful Art. These ideal forms were perfect in their conception and, as such, were privileged over their material manifestations, which were corrupted by the act of existence. Art, then, was doubly damned as being a mere imitation of life, which itself was an imperfect imitation of the ideal forms. Since it was twice removed from the source of divine truth, Plato viewed Art as, at best, a crude but effective tool for reinforcing certain moral truths and persuading people to live by them and, at worst, a dangerous influence that could just as easily subvert a person's rational mind with works of a "lachrymose and fitful temper".

To the Mimetic critic, the meaning of the work lies directly in that which it represents and is to be praised or reviled essentially on two grounds, the precision of the reproduction and the proper moral resonance of the symbol being recreated by the artist or author. Followed to its logical extreme, the more an artist is able to recreate the impression of life, the higher the work must be valued.

The limitations of mimetic criticism (which would, no doubt, prize an oversized edition of Harvey Pekar's AMERICAN SPLENDOR, rendered by none other than Alex Ross, as the summit of comics' potential) in the modern context is plain. While vestiges of mimesis' once unquestioned rule still scuttles about the backwaters of pseudo-criticism and review, its influence today is mostly in being the first, if somewhat limited, response to the question, "What is Art?" While the answer turned out to be unsupportable as valid truth, that desire to articulate Art's meaning beyond the experiencing of it blossomed into a sustainable body of vital, if often contentious, criticism.

Put another way, the mimetic holon offers us only the question, "What is a graphic novel?" without providing any valid criteria by which the query might be answered. To find these, we must explore upward and outward through the four resultant critical holons that form the modern body of criticism. Retaining Wilber's Integral terminology, these are, in turn, Authorial Intent, Symptomatic Theories, Formalism/Structuralism, and Reception/Response, and will be explored, in turn, in the three instalments of Discovering the Elephant that are to follow.

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