What is a graphic novel? In the concluding part of his essay seeking to answer that very question, Rob Vollmar looks at the role the reader plays in the equation, and offers his final answer.
12 January 2004

Read parts one, two and three of this essay.

"I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after"

Wallace Stevens, 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'.

"Who watches the Watchmen?" Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WATCHMEN.

Materialism, along with its critical distillate, formalism, was born of science, seemingly verified by the scientific method, and praised for its validity in the objective language of science. It is only fitting, then, that it was science and scientists like Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger that ultimately led to its abdication as the dominant worldview, giving way to Modernism.

Just as we found the formalist response to the question, "What is a graphic novel?" inadequate to the task, so did the world find Materialism inadequate when faced with startling new revelations about time, space, and the behaviour of the tiny particles that join together improbably to make it and us all up.

The Modernist Era, which most will agree ended around the beginning of the Second World War and began somewhere between 1900 and 1910, was a time of rapid transition the likes of which the world will perhaps never see again. In response to the blistering rate of change, some turned to religion, fascism, communism, nationalism or any other -ism that might offer them even the slimmest measure of the security that the Western world had felt under the mechanistic philosophies of Newtonian physics.

Others, however, turned inwards and began regarding the interior experience of the individual as privileged over the seemingly invalidated intentional and empirical modes of knowing. In specific regards to Art, this led to an abandonment of the notion that there was an objective meaning (whether as intended by the artist or explicit in the work itself) that could be successfully defended as being somehow primary. Instead, the New Critics, as they were known, set about developing a solid method for the interpretation of Art from the reader's perspective, indeed, the only one they thought for sure that they could count on as being authentic.

'I saw the shortcomings of comic books transcended for the first time.' While the critical writings of Cleanth Brooks or TS Eliot may seem divorced somewhat from the act of reading HULK VS WOLVERINE: SIX HOURS in its collected form, the idea that the individual reader might be the one who decides what is and what is not a graphic novel has already laid down powerful roots in Direct Market soil and well beyond. Authorial intention bound critics that sternly insist that no real graphic novel may be previously serialised (which supposedly makes it more novelesque, I suppose) are really just ranting blindly in the face of obvious facts, because everyone knows that WATCHMEN is a graphic novel, just as everyone knows that MAUS is one too. We know because we read them.

Here's a piece of anecdotal evidence. I was about thirteen years old when I was first exposed to the world of Wendy and Richard Pini's ELFQUEST. Like many of my generation, my first contact with this comic came packaged in a fairly large trade paperback collection that, if memory serves, was the first vehicle for the colourised version of the black and white serials. I didn't own my own set of the large books, but they were common enough around the various houses I visited while playing Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy based role playing games with my friends on the weekend that, before long, I had every detail of Cutter and the Wolfriders' saga deeply imbedded in my head.

I remember distinctly explaining ELFQUEST and its appeal to my sister, with whom it was not uncommon to share books, music, and other pop culture effluvia. This went on for some time until I had piqued her curiosity enough that she wanted to read it for herself, if only to be given respite from my incessant yammering about it. Upon producing a borrowed copy for her, she looked at me, a little puzzled, and said, "It's a comic book?"

If cognitive dissonance made a noise, I would have blown out the windows of my bedroom. Never once in all the times that I had read it had it ever occurred to me that ELFQUEST was a comic book, nor had I ever bothered to describe it as one. It may have been made of words and pictures but, young and trained by grocery store comic books as I was, I had no words for comics that were not comic books, other than comic strips, so I just thought of it as a book.

Even at this extremely limited stage of critical faculty, a number of the criteria for graphic novelhood that we have discussed in earlier instalments were evident already, and they no doubt played in to my interpretation. It was formatted like a book, which was a first for me. Each collection was long, certainly in comparison to any pamphlet I'd been privy to, and dense enough that reading a volume in one sitting would provide an experience roughly equal to that of having read a whole novel.

'Never once had it occurred to me that ELFQUEST was a comic book.' More subtly, the sexual content of the series was more naturalistic than anything I had ever read in comics, having more in common with the novelists whose work I frequented like Michael Moorcock, Steven King, Robert Heinlein, or Frank Herbert, which I had been devouring since childhood. While certainly tame by comparison to other seminal 80s works done in comics, ELFQUEST had a likeable charm and a cartoony style that invited younger readers to cautiously enter this semi-sexual world of adult elves if only as observers. While this may sound creepy to Protestants, manga (an obviously profound influence on ELFQUEST both in visual style and narrative structure) utilizes a similar strategy to keep kids reading through adolescence and on into adulthood and with a greater success than superhero comics have found it within their ken to achieve in recent years.

So, while I had no language with which to articulate the demarcation between comic book and this other thing that I had discovered, the difference was plain enough to me through the experience alone to foster a nascent understanding of a graphic novel while having absolutely no cultural awareness of the term itself. Through a genuine experience of the work itself, I became aware for the first time of limitations of length, sophistication, and complexity that was part and particle of the experience of reading comic books by seeing those shortcomings transcended for the first time. It was not the last time it would happen (as indeed it happens in some respects each time a graphic novel is read) but, as they say, the first cut is the deepest.

Applied more generally, the lesson here seems to indicate that if a consensus of readers perceives a work to have stepped beyond the inherent limitations of a comic book, it will probably be considered a graphic novel, despite any amount of critical grousing to the contrary. A classic example of this is Will Eisner's A CONTRACT WITH GOD. Probably the most-often repeated myth about graphic novels in the mainstream press is that CONTRACT was the first one. Given Eisner's rather visible role in the genesis of the American comic book industry, it is a likeable myth, if also a difficult one to critically defend.

Inevitably, though, when one of its detractors begins an attack on its status as the first graphic novel, they do so by insisting that it's not a proper graphic novel at all but a graphic collection of short stories, which obsessive readers might recognise as being a formalist argument. In this sense, it trumps any authorial intention argument that it was a graphic novel because Eisner intended it to be by virtue of being from a higher holonic development; rather, if Eisner had set out to create a graphic novel, he failed because it is instead a graphic short story collection by virtue of its form.

However, it is the reader who always has the final say and, more often than not, what they say upon its completion is that it definitely exceeds the grasp of the comic book form and, by virtue, is a graphic novel, a catch-all term that describes any long form work of comics regardless of its form. A CONTRACT WITH GOD was hardly the first, but it is certainly a graphic novel. To insist that a work that has been experienced by its audience as a graphic novel is, in fact, not, is the end product of the myopia that is inevitable when a critic refuses to recognize the holarchic nature of the modes of knowing in favour of remaining in a state of irreconcilable confusion. "And so", one might ask, "That's it? If the reader says that something is a graphic novel, then that's the end of it?"

'It's an often repeated myth that CONTRACT WITH GOD was the first graphic novel.' In our journey to uncover the roots of commonly held beliefs about graphic novels and the modes of knowing about them, it was necessary to start from a place and travel outwards in order to understand the process of transcendence and inclusion that defines the evolution of an idea. The unfortunate side-effect of that approach is that considering the process in this way can leave the impression that those holons that are transcended are somehow lessened by the experience, or that the highest emanation is the only one that counts. This kind of thinking is what inevitably leads to mistaking the holon for the holarchy and losing sight of the vitality that each individual component has to contribute, both as a whole and as a part.

While a reader response interpretation has the potential to trump lower holonic critical functions, it cannot do so in defiance of those truths that were included in the process of transcendence from below. To pick up the most recent issue of TV Guide and declare it a graphic novel does not make it so. The author(s) did not intend to make one even unconsciously. Despite being made up of words and pictures, it is not composed of comics, nor does it address the limitations of lower forms like the comic strip or the comic book, which were the matrix from which the graphic novel necessarily emerges.

To explore the four quadrants of critical theory and apply them in turn to the question of, "What is a graphic novel?" is not in itself the Integral approach but merely a very comprehensive survey of the varying opinions about Art. What the Integral approach offers us is not just the method to arrive at a full understanding of the question, but the vision necessary to prioritise the data that is collected then into its natural order of emanation to bring about harmony as the constituent holons stop fighting for dominance and return to contributing their vital portion of the whole.

Based on this expectation, the Integral response to the question, "What is a graphic novel?" can then be summarized succinctly enough as, "A graphic novel is any long form work of comics that the reader/critic perceives as having been created with the intention of transcending the potential of comics delivered in shorter formats."

And, thus does our quest to discover the elephant comes to a close. I very much appreciate those readers who have had the patience to wade through all the difficult language and postulating, and invite those intrigued by the potential of the Integral process to investigate the writings of Ken Wilber further. Comics criticism, unlike literary theory, is a brand new field, and while we may begin this process by borrowing from existing criticism about Art in general, the task still remains for the future to develop a body of work that begins to address the unique questions that the synergy of pictures and narrative inspire within the reader, the Artist, and critic alike. If this series of essays is able to contribute even the smallest portion of truth to those in service to that task, then it was, to me, time well spent in the writing.

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