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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, April 21, 2016


As a prelude to this week's mythcomic  I have to comment somewhat on the ideas behind the so-called "graphic novel."

The term was coined by Richard Kyle in a 1964 contribution to the apa-zine Capa-Alpha (of which I, by coincidence, am a current member). However, the term didn't catch fire until after the 1978 publication of Will Eisner's A CONTRACT WITH GOD.  Clearly, given that the word "novel" carried far more gravitas than "comic book," the use of the term was an attempt to separate ambitious graphic narratives from pamphlets aimed dominantly at a juvenile audience.

I'm going from memory here for the time being, but as I recall Dave Sim was one of those who took issue with using the term "novel" in this sense, arguing that most of the candidates for the term simply lacked the scope to justify the term-- as opposed to his then-ongoing work on CEREBUS, which when finished in 2004 displayed an impressive length (6000+ pages) and covered more than a fair share of intellectual topics.

This raises the question, though, of whether scope is the proper way to define the novel. Wikipedia mentions that in the 17th century "romance" was sometimes used to denote a narrative of epic length, while "novel" was applied to shorter works. Nevertheless, though the term "romance" had a venerable history, having been applied to prose works from the Hellenistic period, the term "novel" superseded "romance" in the 20th century. In the mid-1950s Northrop Frye made a perhaps futile effort to restore the term "romance" to respectability, asserting that it was a better description for those 19th-century works, such as MOBY DICK and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, that included a "subjective intensity" not present in more down-to-earth works. But to date the culture as a whole still deems these works "novels" no less than much shorter works, such as John Barth's END OF THE ROAD.

A further complication is that "romance" as a literary term also has ties with the rambling type of stories from medieval and Renaissance times, the so-called "chivalric romance." Arguably these romances replicated the scope of the verse epics in which much of our current knowledge of archaic myths is preserved. Some verse epics are as thematically coherent as many modern novels, such as the EPIC OF GILGAMESH. In contrast, although Aristotle praises Homer for centering the ILIAD upon the retreat of Achilles, this particular verse epic is not nearly as unified as the Sumerian epic, given that many chapters are devoted to spinning forth numerous traditional tales of the Trojan War that don't technically have much to do with Achilles. By the late 19th century verse epics had perished-- one of the last, THE SONG OF HIAWATHA, showing some rather "superheroic" aspects-- and the epic poem's killer was none other than the prose novel.

Many of the best-known novels of this century-- DAVID COPPERFIELD, LES MISERABLES-- tended toward an "epic" scope, and authors like Trollope and Balzac sometimes wrote interrelated novels set in the same fictional "universes." The early 20th century continued in the use of the term "novel" for both relatively short works, like the books of London and Hemingway, and very long works like Dos Passos' "USA trilogy. But though there were some minor experiments in the "graphic novel" during this period, none of them set any trends, and for the first thirty-eight years of the twentieth century, Americans largely experienced the comics-medium only through the newspaper comic strip.

In my essay-series THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, I came to the conclusion that gag-oriented comic strips were as a rule too short to allow for Aristotelian "complication." I further asserted that narratives had their greatest capacity for mythicity when they possessed the traditional "beginning, middle and end," which worked to maximize a given story's potential for "connotative associations." However, in this essay-series I did not deal with the "long form" of the comic strip, the "story-strip," which usually focused on one dominant narrative arc, usually with no more than one subplot, usually a setup for a future main plot.

Some forgotten comics-critic once opined that Dave Sim's scope-oriented definition of the novel was his means of giving CEREBUS a unique position in the history of comic books. The same critic suggested that many manga artists had already produced works that were at least as long as CEREBUS, though one may doubt that these stories were quite as intellectually provocative as Sim's massive work. Still, that critic might have mentioned a precursor "closer to home" than any manga-epic, and that is the type of "long melodrama" that flourished in newspaper comics from the late 1920s until roughly the 1950s-- which is about the time when "story-strips" faded from prominence in newspapers.

I want to be very careful in evaluating what if any ways that the "long melodrama" strips of the classic comic-strip era-- PRINCE VALIANT, TARZAN, FLASH GORDON, WASH TUBBS-- have to being any sort of "graphic novels." While the individual story-lines of these strips do have greater potential for complication in the sense of being mythic, they don't have much of the "scope" often applied to the general idea of the novel. Since each of these storylines is just one narrative arc, without a lot of complementary development, such arcs might be better compared to the novella than the novel proper.

However, I have come across one anomaly among the comics strips of the classic period-- one in which the author managed to combine an "epic" quantity of plot-developments over a period much longer than the usual three months assigned to most narrative arcs in this medium. More on this anomaly tomorrow.

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