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Comics & Comic Books

Strictly speaking, comic books aren't. Books, I mean. They're magazines. What we call graphic novels, those are books. Many of them aren't really novels, though. I recently reviewed one that was 48 pages and ended with a "to be continued." That's a novel? No, but squarebound with a stiff cover and a generous page size, it is a book.

Even calling comic books magazines is being generous. By today's standards, 32 pages stapled in the middle sounds more like an amateur fanzine. To call such a thing a book is simply ludicrous.

I really think the idea of calling the squarebound 52-64 page magazines of the 30s comic "books" was a stroke of marketing genius, and they came closer to deserving it than their smaller descendants. But it may have been in the long run the single biggest factor impeding any possibility of the medium being taken seriously: "That's not a book, it's a comic book."

Even more than the proliferation of funny animals and men in tights, the rather silly notion that this flimsy thing you can roll up and put in your back pocket is a book has kept people from taking comics seriously. Even a Harlequin romance resembles "War and Peace" until you open it and read it, while these things are . . . well, whatever they are, they're not books.

I would like to propose a change in our usage. Let's quit calling them comic books, and reserve that term for books with comics. Let's call them what they really are - comics magazines. This didn't seem so strange when Stan Lee began proclaiming that the Fantastic Four was "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine" right on the cover back in the early 60s.

What Does "Comic Book" Mean?

I have no real hope that my proposal will be followed (unless market forces intervene to kill "comic books" as we know them altogether, which as we approach the 21st Century seems ominously possible but not really likely). I know that the term "comic book" is inextricably linked with those flimsy periodicals, and just as surely linked in the public mind with negative connotations of unworthiness. Shallow movies will always have "comic book" plots, slow adults will always be stereotyped as reading "comic books" instead of books, flamboyant over-the-top celebrities will always be "comic book characters." I wish and hope that we will get over all this someday, but realistically I realize that it's not likely to happen.

And it all goes back, I believe, to the insistence on the part of purveyors and fans to call these flimsy things comic "books." To an ordinary person, this is nonsensical. A person who calls this a book would call a shack a palace, a child's wagon a railroad flatcar. What credibility could you give such a person?

Of course, when the name was given, it wasn't quite so ludicrous. Slightly larger in height and width than today's comics, the first comics had more pages and were squarebound, with covers at least a little thicker than the pages inside. Still, Esquire magazine is squarebound and over 100 pages, but I don't consider it a book.

I reserve the term "comic book," at least on these pages, for books that contain comics. I think that's a better term for such books than the current industry usage "graphic novel." When non-fictional works like "Understanding Comics" are referred to as graphic novels, the word "novel" ceases to have any meaning. At least it has none of the meaning it has acquired in the last 300 years or so with reference to literary works, although its original meaning of "something new" might still apply. Clearly "Understanding Comics" is no more a novel than "Understanding Media" or "The Joy of Cooking."

Graphic Novels

Dave Sim, creator of Cerebus the Aardvark, likes to say that a graphic novel is a minimum of 500 pages long (although one of his own novels, "Jaka's Story" clocks in at only 480). He calls his book "Melmoth" a short story, although, at 240 pages, it's longer than the vast majority of books published as graphic novels.

(Of course, some would deny even Sim has right to the title, insisting that he produces "graphic albums," collections of material printed in serial form. True "graphic novels," by some definitions, must be original works published for the first time in book form. I find this argument foolish. Nearly all of Dickens' works were first published serially in magazines. Does that means Dickens was not a novelist? Horsefeathers.)

While not quite as picky as Sim, I would agree that most of the works called "graphic novels" are simply too short for the title. Edgar Allen Poe is often called the inventor of the modern short story, and he defined it as "a story short enough to read in one sitting." While admitting that an insomniac might turn a Stephen King 400-page book into a short story by this definition, I think it's basically a good one. It's not so much a matter of how long it is, but how it is likely to be read. If you can easily read it in one sitting of an hour or two, it simply doesn't deserve to be called a novel.

But it might well be a book.

By calling all books with comics by a single term, we can also embrace the likes of Garfield collections, long disdained by "serious" comics fans but books with comics in them nonetheless. And while some devotees of "serious" comics might not want to be lumped in with Garfield and Dilbert, the fact is that the general public finds the latter far more acceptable than superheroes. Not to mention that the general public sees the notion of "serious superheroes" as an oxymoron.

Few people read comics magazines, but lots and lots of people read comics. The distinction between "comic books" (magazines) and "comic strips" is mostly artificial. There are some differences in the comics magazine page and the basic daily three panel format, but the latter is only the most familiar format for newspaper strips. There are weekly strips that more resemble magazine pages, like Linda Barry's "Ernie Pook's Comeek" or Tom Tomorrow's "This Modern World," not to mention the great Sunday strips of the 1930s which were, in fact, whole pages and inspired many of the more adventurous page layouts seen in the magazines.

Whenever people talk about the "comics industry" they always talk about "comic books" (magazines). When they talk about "graphic novels" they often discuss things that are definitely not novels (like "Give It Up," a 64-page collection of unrelated short stories or "Understanding Comics") but exclude collections of newspaper strips that tell a continuous narrative (collections of "Doonesbury" or "For Better or For Worse," for example). This is nuts. Pictures deliberately juxtaposed for narrative, explanatory or artistic intent are comics, no matter where they appear. If they appear in a bound book, they're comic books.

Some important books of comics are Maus, by Art Spiegelman; Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse; and such collections as Cerebus by Dave Sim; Sandman, by Neil Gaiman and various artists; and Love and Rockets, by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. A list of books I recommend is on my Comic Books (List) page.

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