In the third part of Rob Vollmar's attempt to arrive at a working definition for the term 'graphic novel', he turns to the subject of formalism, and the questions thus raised about serialisation, length, sophistication and complexity.
15 December 2003

Read part one and part two of this essay.

The first two critical holons we've visited, authorial intention and symptomatic function theories, are concerned with the creator as the source of understanding this hard-to-pin down graphic novel. In this third stage of development, the critic turns away from the creator and toward the work itself as the source of truth.

It is important to remember that doing so in no way invalidates the sustainable truths of the earlier holons (i.e. authorial intention is the simple path to graphic novelhood, or that the impulse to create graphic novels is not dependant on a pre-existent awareness of the form) as long as those truths are not mistaken for the logical fallacies inherent to mistaking one strata of the critical holarchy for the whole of its structure.

The critical school of formalism came into being during the Age of Enlightenment as the great thinkers of that time sought to reduce all existence down to a mechanism that could be observed, catalogued, and, ultimately, understood. Wilber notes that, " [f]or formalism in general, the meaning of a text or an artwork is found in the formal relationships between elements of the work itself (109)". Related to the question of graphic novels, it appears that formalism would encourage the critic to address the form itself directly in order to understand what is and is not truly a graphic novel.

At the root of the question for many, "What is a graphic novel?" is a concern about format. Along this line of reasoning, it is simple enough then to generate criteria by which the work might be judged. There is a percentage of those potential criteria upon which nearly the whole body of formalist critics could agree. Common sense dictates that if graphic novels do indeed exist (an idea which the Taoist camp is still hotly debating) then length, for example, is surely a factor. If the comic book generally hovers somewhere between twenty-two and forty-eight pages, it is not unreasonable to assume that a form that promised greater depth and sophistication would require more pages in order to accomplish that task.

'Formalism would encourage the critic to address the form directly.' A thornier question is one of serialization. There is one school of thought that insists a proper graphic novel is assembled and delivered to the audience en masse as a book. This line of reasoning calls into question most of the landmark graphic novels (WATCHMEN, MAUS, GHOST WORLD, JIMMY CORRIGAN) based on happenstances of publishing economy, which, by my critical reckoning, calls into question its usefulness as a critical approach. Literature snobs would be quick to point out that most novels (the form from which we are supposedly importing all this credibility) published prior to the 20th century and well on into it were first serialized in some form or another.

Still, this ambiguity has left us with another critical term to contain our anxiety about the instability of the graphic novel as a form, namely the trade paperback (TPB). Most commonly understood to be a collection of a previously serialised issues, the TPB suffers somewhat under the stigma of being the graphic novel of the fanboy. The argument that a trade paperback is not the same as a graphic novel is not easily dismissed. If there really is a difference, potentially in quality if the public's perception and treatment of them is any indicator, between a comic book and a graphic novel, then surely you can't just make a graphic novel by putting a spine on comic books?

While hardly satisfying the conservative critics among us, my own solution is to consider this relationship of comic book to trade paperback to graphic novel as a continuum. Some works like Craig Thompson's BLANKETS or Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's CHANNEL ZERO: JENNIE ONE would register way over on the right side as they were completed and delivered to the public as a whole work. Just a little more to the left would be works like FROM HELL or even Bryan Talbot's HEART OF EMPIRE which were delivered in some kind of serial format but were definitely written with the larger structure of the work in mind and allowed for the length of the segments to be dictated by that story instead of by serial format demands.

'The TPB suffers under the stigma of being the graphic novel of the fanboy.' Somewhere just near the border (known only to its inhabitants) would probably be collections of the more ambitious genre works like Morrison's NEW X-MEN, which plays both angles, utilising the strict form of the 22-page superhero comic and its usual tropes as discrete pieces within story-arcs that give a sense of wholeness, if not completion, upon reading them together.

For all the attention that we've paid so far to publishing errata (nobody but academics hang on to that stuff for more than a generation anyway), what can we defensibly say about the interior structure of a graphic novel? What demands should be placed on it critically to insure that we are not merely parading around comic books in fancy pants as something truly new?

Many would argue that the structure of a proper graphic novel should resemble a prose novel in some recognisable way, thus paying deference to the validity of the term. The Webster's Unabridged Dictionary offers us a formalist definition for the novel as, "a relatively long fictional prose narrative with a more or less complex plot or pattern of events, about human beings, their feelings, thoughts, actions, etc". Applicable criteria safely borrowed from this relatively conservative definition of the novel might include length, medium, sophistication, and, to a certain extent, content.

While length and medium (i.e. graphic novels should be made of comics) are easy enough to defend as potentially valid criteria, the latter two, sophistication and content, are not. During the last graphic novel renaissance in the 1980s, many people considered the graphic novel to be a new form for comics and one primarily targeted at adults as, it was assumed, comic books were and had always been intended primarily for children. While this perception has indeed been helpful in gaining respectability for the modern manifestation of the now centuries-old practice of making comics, it is a distortion of the facts.

There has been the equivalent of graphic novels for children from the very beginning, wherever even the strictest of critics might decide to place it. Herge's TINTIN was the bedrock of the European comics industry in its infancy and was sold to the widest number of people in completed stories though some were previously serialised. Tezuka's first self-contained works like NEW TREASURE ISLAND were graphic novels for children. There is nothing inherent in the form that would appear to place real demands on the presumed age or sophistication in the audience.

'Many considered the graphic novel to be a new form primarily targeted at adults.' Complexity, however, is a slightly different matter. A comic book pamphlet bears in it the implicit threat that this might be the one and only issue of that comic that a potential reader might ever see. It is a tension that is intrinsic to the experience of reading a pamphlet. This claustrophobia places unique pressures on a story being produced in this fashion that only the most dedicated of graphic novelists will be able to defy in deference to the larger structure for fear of alienating those who need to be caught up with "the story thus far". If each segment of a trade paperback has a significant portion of recap from the previous ones (or even ones not in that collection), it does break up the narrative continuity in a way that is more suggestive of the complexity of your average pamphlet than that of a fully realized graphic novel.

To draw a clearer distinction between the function of the segments in comic books and graphic novels, I offer the terms episodic and cumulative. The episodic segment is a portion that cycles through a complete arc of climax and release while leaving the story elements in place for a subsequent, similarly structured cycle to follow. A cumulative segment has a specific arc to its action that is dictated by its placement in the book, whether that be done in a more traditional fashion of character introduction, tension, exposition, climax, and denouement or in complete defiance of any recognisable pattern as conceived by its author. Appreciating the difference between these two intentions is an important tool in mapping the continuum between trade paperbacks and graphic novels and moving beyond lingering questions about serialization.

The validity of using a particular school of criticism can only be weighed in the useful truths that it provides. What we have learned from formalism can be best boiled down to, "A graphic novel is a long-form work of comics that exhibits a potential for greater complexity not available to shorter works". While this may not seem like much to many, it does defer the question of graphic novel legitimacy for pieces like Tezuka's LOST WORLD or Lynd Ward's woodcut novels away from, "What is a graphic novel?" and back on to, "What is comics?" where it belongs.

What we've also learned is that the secret to defining graphic novels does not lie in its entirety within this holon either, nor would we have even reason to believe that it would, unless convinced that it was, in fact, the entirety of the whole structure. Consistent with holonic theory, we honour the valid truths found, and plot the course to the emanation which completes our quadrant grid. In the synergy of these four ways of knowing lies the Integral truth that we are seeking, and to utilize it, we must turn the last participant in this Art equation, the reader.

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