The gutter. The small gap between two frames in a comic book, or – proverbially – where the entire genre has traditionally remained. Comics are younger than literature and older than films, yet they have remained relatively unstudied, with little academic discipline surrounding them. Despite this, they have come a long way since the middle of the twentieth century, when they were accused of reducing literacy by replacing ‘proper’ literature, on top of the fact they morally endangered children with their salacious plots. Nowadays, Classics Illustrated publishes short comic book adaptations of literary texts, encouraging children to read stories they may never otherwise have picked up. Yet it is not as though the medium lacks noteworthy predecessors: Hogarth can be seen as an eighteenth century innovator of comics, his ‘Progresses’, or visual narratives, tell stories of calamitous social climbing; Goya’s Disasters of War from the beginning of the nineteenth century combine words with images to warn against the horrors of violence. Long seen as a medium for ‘entertainment’, comic book artists are increasingly challenging these assumptions. Joe Sacco (who has reported from Gaza, Iraq and Chechnya in comic book form) and Art Spiegleman (author of Maus, a memoir of his father’s experience of the Holocaust) utilise the form’s traditionally fantastical connotations for a literary purpose, aestheticising their unimaginable content matter. Yet the question begs to be asked: should comic books be judged on terms with traditional literature?
Even the terminology surrounding this question is fiercely debated. Whereas most like to refer to works such as Maus as ‘graphic novels’, the term seems to be a hopeful attempt to disassociate the new breed of ‘intelligent’ comics from tales of superheroes, making a clear distinction between comic- book-pulp-fiction and high-art -visual-narratives. Publisher Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape chooses not to make a distinction between comic books and graphic novels, although he admits that, “because the books we publish are at the more literary end of the spectrum I’m probably inclined to think of them as graphic novelists first.” Comic book theorist Scott McCloud – at the forefront of the new ‘academicising’ movement – prefers to call them ‘sequential narratives.’ However, this term is yet to catch on in popular usage. Practitioner Nick Hayes, a former student at Emmanuel College and author of acclaimed graphic novel The Rime of the Modern Mariner, is more relaxed about the matter: “people get all in a fluster about this. The most pretentious of the lot is Sequential Artist, but I think you may as well print up a T-shirt that proclaims your own self-esteem paranoia... I tend to change my job title to suit its audience.”
This year, two graphic works were shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for the first time in the prize’s history. Winning the biography category was Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, by Mary and Bryan Talbot - a comic-strip life of James Joyce’s daughter, blended with memoirs of Mary’s father; in the novel category Joff Winterhart’s linear story of a holiday, Days of the Bagnold Summer, went up against Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Is it fair to judge such different mediums against each other? In his 1766 work Laocoon, Lessing criticised the comparison of pictures with words, contesting that they are so different that they should never be compared. However, such a simple division of the two is not possible with comic books. Hayes thinks that the best comic books have an equal emphasis on both elements: “I think the best comics place equal emphasis on the words and the images, or at least make some kind of balance – I think the most striking effect a comic has is the initial view of a two-page spread, when you have just turned a page – at that point, the words have no meaning, as they are not immediately discernible, but they operate as shapes which break up the flow of other shapes. That’s how I try to see them when designing my pages.”
Comic books, prose and poetry are often aligned in their commitment to narrative, however oblique, yet the same is also true of films and video games: is it only a matter of time until we see these forms nominated for the Costa prize? Hayes feels that comparisons are “as useful as comparing films to theatre. Or a herd of caribou to a hunk of cheese...” about as useful as asking, “Which is better, love or summer?” One feature which remains unique to comic books is their ability to depict several events simultaneously on the same page; they need not follow the linear structure of books as they demand a different perceptual process, deploying several narratives at once. Although similar to the way in which prose readers fill in gaps and elisions to create meaning, the gutters of comic books are the element which stops them either being literature or graphic art. The use of gutters – be it a traditional white gap or the blended areas of Will Eisner’s images – draws attention to the fragmentary nature of narratives, and allows the authors to explore dynamic elements such as crumbling memories onto the page. Sara Stewart, a third year Historian who draws her own comics, thinks that people often equate comics to picture books, “that the pictures are there to make comics simpler and easier to read”, although she can “understand this angle, which is probably born out of childhood memories of the Beano and the like, but it is still only an exhibition of ignorance.” However, Angus Cargill, a publisher at Faber, believes that many comic book artists do not mind the ambiguity of the medium - and whether it is equated to literature: “The comic is pretty much defined as an outsider art form, and that’s a big part of its appeal.”
This outsider status is in increasing danger. A growing number of films (Scott Pilgrim vs the World), television shows (Channel 4’s Utopia), and books (those by Neil Gaiman), have been based on comic books. In the academic world, the first ever conference on the graphic novel took place in 1998, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Eisner’s A Contract with God: one of the first works to be called a ‘graphic novel.’ Although Stewart believes that “there also isn’t really any sort of acceptance of them as a form of literature within the university itself”, Rob Macfarlane teaches Maus to his students at Emmanuel; the same Maus that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Alison Bechdel’s first novel, Fun Home, was made Time Magazine’s book of the year in 2006; Chris Ware is the first comic book artist to be exhibited at the Whitney, gaining unprecedented attention for his newest work, Building Stories, in which fourteen printed works—cloth-bound books, newspapers and flip books - tell the stories of characters in a Chicago apartment block. Hayes recognises a familiar trajectory: “According to David Mamet, there once was a time when actors and playwrights were buried at the crossroads, with stakes through their hearts. Then theatre became acceptable. Then it became mainstream. Now it’s considered elitist. Aaron Solkin can now be said to be ‘as good as Shakespeare’ as if that means anything.”
The question of whether graphic novels should be compared to traditional literature occurs again when discussing awards and prizes. Whilst delighted at Winterhart’s nomination, Franklin believes it to be “palpably absurd” that the graphic novel should be up against Mantel’s work: “What would be wonderful would be either for Costa to add a graphic novel category, or (as has been talked about for years) for someone to inaugurate a prize for graphic books.” However, Cargill disagrees: “why shouldn’t those two books be included? I mean it’s a prize that pitches poetry against fiction against children’s against non-fiction already – and how the hell do you judge those things against each other – so why not graphic novels too?” Graphic novels also resist the transformations which have led to other sections of the book industry suffering. Works such as Building Stories can also be seen as a reaction against the increasing digitisation of books on Kindles and such devices; indeed, Cargill sees Haibibi – a bestselling comic by Craig Thompson – as part of this trend: “the physical book was conceived and designed as a beautiful, physical object and that’s the only form it exists in currently. That’s great and I’m sure adds value. The same can be said for Building Stories for sure.” However, the path to getting published is difficult, and questions over whether graphic novels sell in the same numbers as traditional literature is hard to answer. Cargill thinks the mainstream ‘crossover’ is “basically defined by sales – when things like Maus, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, Haibibi sell, they’re noticed by people who don’t normally read ‘comics.’” Whilst it is true that many more graphic novels are getting the attention that they deserve, the graphic novelist still faces an uphill battle to see their work in print. Hayes acknowledges this difficulty, explaining that “the scope of graphic novels is blinkered and limited, essentially because publishers like to publish what they have already published. The pussies.”
There is a certain sense of inevitability that, following the emergence of this new form as a serious and increasingly popular one, we will incline to judge it with reference to the status quo; one of the most straightforward ways in which we come to acclimatize ourselves to intrusive new forms is by equating them with the past. But with so much exciting and innovative work going on within a genre which itself remains incredibly diverse, it is when we appreciate and recognize the uniqueness of each separate work that comics can really start climbing out of the gutter.