Rob Vollmar continues his four-part study into defining the graphic novel with a look at the role played by authorial intent, with consideration of the works and words of creators Eddie Campbell and Osamu Tezuka.
03 November 2003

Read part one of this essay here.

Modern criticism about Art begins with the idea that the impetus for Art (divinely inspired or otherwise) requires a human participant in order to manifest. The meaning of a piece is a product of authorial intent, and to discover said meaning, all that a potential critic must do is plumb the historical record (auxiliary writings, essays etc) to uncover what the artist intended.

Applied directly to the question of, "What is a graphic novel?" an author-centred criticism offers many insights, some so comforting that many critics begin and end their search right here. The simplest and perhaps most conclusive test that any potential graphic novel can quickly pass is, "Did the creator or creators intend to make one? " In fact, considering the speed with which the term "graphic novel" has spread throughout popular culture, the largest percentage of them being produced today would undoubtedly be certified without question in just this way.

Yet, for all the utility that this approach may offer, it also introduces a number of troubling questions that, unfortunately, cannot be resolved by a mere historical assessment of the author's intention, which in some cases will be impossible to obtain.

''Art requires a human participant in order to manifest.'' For many, Intention would presuppose that one be aware of the idea of graphic novels in order to create one. This strategy becomes, then, particularly advantageous to anyone with a vested interest in being perceived as having created the first graphic novel, as it severely limits the field of potential applicants to a period of time somewhere between the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the term was coined. It offers if not an empirical answer to the question, "What was the first graphic novel?" then at least a credibly small body of works to consider historically as the loci for the genesis of the form.

In those cases where a clear lineage to this more narrow graphic novel tradition cannot be established, a decision must be made as to whether evidence in the historical record can prove that intent can precede awareness of the term itself. In some cases, this may not prove beyond the measure of research, if we are willing to take the creator's word at face value.

In the introduction of the Eddie Campbell Comics edition of his own first graphic novel, ALEC THE KING CANUTE CROWD, published in 2000, Campbell states, "It [THE KING CANUTE CROWD] is autobiographical, of course, and was envisioned at the onset as a novel, though we weren't saying graphic novel then". While one could argue that envisioning it "as a novel" and its status as a graphic novel are not exactly synonymous, Campbell's inclusion of THE KING CANUTE CROWD on to a list of important GN's of the 20th century in HOW TO BE AN ARTIST leaves us with a fairly clear impression of his authorial intent which, at this point, is what we are looking for.

Campbell's is a relatively easy case to resolve, positioned in time well after the coining of the term "graphic novel", and also after more than a few successful attempts by others (Jim Steranko, Will Eisner, Gil Kane for example) to create just such a thing. But, what of those whose contribution to the form came before the term had been coined in America?

'Can the record prove that intent can precede awareness of the term 'graphic novel'?' In his introduction to LOST WORLD (Dark Horse, 2003), manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka ruminates upon its foundation, saying, "At the time [around 1940 or '41], I thought that at the very least there was no other comic book like mine, which was like a novel (albeit a very crude one) and had an unhappy ending. In saying so, I mean that I believe this was a forerunner of gekiga [literary manga], and actually, since I even went out of my way to include the remark, 'This is not a comic, nor is it a novel' at the beginning of my prototype, I think I must have had considerably high hopes for it at the time."

These cases where intent predates the coining of the term graphic novel in English represent a clear threat to the ordering principles of the authorial intent strategy. If the historical record is truly the highest authority in deciding what is and what isn't a graphic novel, then how do we resolve those cases where there is no historical record upon which to draw? Is pretending that those works don't exist the best path towards the discovery of truth?

Returning to critic Ken Wilber's assessment of the critical holons, we find that authorial intent represents the subjective quadrant of knowing. It finds truthfulness in scouring the interior of the subject (in this case, the author or creator) in order to discover its meaning. In this way, it is an extension of the Mimetic school of criticism that denies the primacy of the object over our ideal conception of it but it re-centres our focus on the human, which must be present for awareness and artistic creation to exist at all.

By making this small shift from Mimesis to Intent, we have been able to comfortably classify the largest percentage of potential works as being clearly graphic novels, which, critically, is a success or at least the beginning of one. To truly begin the process of making valid critical assessments of graphic novels that are not readily classifiable by means of an authorial intent strategy, it is essential that we widen our critical net to the next holon - the new whole of which the last is now but a part.

'Tezuka remarked, 'This is not a comic, nor is it a novel'.' Wilber posits that, "even if we agree that art is found first and foremost in the original intention of the artist ... the artist can have unconscious intentions; patterns in his or her work that can be clearly spotted by others but might not consciously known to the artists themselves."

Allowing the critic to consider the influence of the unconscious mind as part of the equation offers a variety of novel solutions to unsolvable problems from the holon before. Consider Tezuka in his assessment of his work that was "not a comic nor is it a novel". As he has no word for what his unconscious mind (the seat of art and innovation) has laid out before him, he utilizes this double negative language to describe the space around what he perceives, if dimly.

To create a graphic novel while working with something resembling a clear idea of what one might be is an act of Will; a function of the rational Ego. To create one from the desire to improve upon and overcome the limitations of an existing or predominant form is an urge of the unconscious mind. Thus, these symptomatic theories become our key to unlocking the body of long-form comics that predate the most recent incarnation of that idea, the graphic novel.

Like every holon, the symptomatic theories come equipped with new obstacles to go with all of those advantages. While they do allow for a new body of works to be considered, they offer no criteria for sorting either wheat from chaff or trade paperback from graphic novel. Like Mimesis, they ask the question while providing little for its eventual solution, save the track of progress towards the next holonic expansion.

In order to discover these criteria, the critic must be prepared to make the awful leap from author to text. This will require no less than thirty days of uninterrupted rest from academic criticism about comics at which point, I hope, we shall continue to make this journey together and with cheer.

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