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A Post on the Joys of the Illustrated Novel

A Post on the Joys of the Illustrated Novel

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When I decided to write this entry, I didn't know Brian Selznick was going to win the Caldecott for The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But it doesn't surprise me. Nor am I surprised at the discussions of what it means to have something other than a picture book win the Caldecott. We're living in interesting times, after all.

As a writer and illustrator much given to despair at the glutted picture book market, I'm glad to see the industry publishing titles that incorporate the length and depth of novels with the luminous visual storytelling of picture books. I hope that what I'm seeing is not just a fad, but the birth of a new genre.

As a child, I wondered why grown up books didn't have pictures. How dull. When my reading skills hit midgrade level, I read those "dull" words-only stories voraciously, and no longer cared that the books were without images.

Still, an intriguing cover image would draw me back again and again as I read, and I would try to fit what I saw to the words within. And the world of picture books never lost its enchantment-- I savored childhood favorites, as well as books like Kit Williams' Masquerade, that offered ideas for adults in a format usually reserved for children. I pored over an exhibit of medieval books of hours in college.

Later I discovered graphic novels-- Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize "Special Award" winning Maus (the award committee wasn't sure how to classify it), and Alan Moore's more traditional comic series, Watchmen. I thought of Hugo Cabret as a graphic novel-- likewise Clive Barker's Abarat-- because both incorporated images throughout the usually forbidden turf of the novel.

The first book to arrive in my mailbox for this year's Cybils graphic novel nominees was Ruth McNally Barshaw's wonderful Ellie MacDoodle. How cool, I thought. A graphic novel without frames, for the younger set.

It had images throughout. The story didn't work without the images, even though it wasn't organized in the traditional comic style panels. My kids immediately snagged the book and sang its praises-- my oldest said that even though it had a girl for a main character, the boys in his class would love it.

But as our panel discussed what makes a graphic novel, we sadly concluded that it didn't fit, and shipped it off to the midgrade panelists. I learned that Hugo Cabret and Abarat were not graphic novels either. Current graphic novel definitions include serialized art as the mode of storytelling, without breaks for long chunks of text outside of the visual format, even though there may be captions within the serial artwork.

The problem is that I'm not sure the hybrid stories, like Ellie, and Hugo, and Abarat, really fit under the general heading of midgrade(or YA), either.

A story which relies significantly on visual storytelling has a different shape and mode of expression than an imageless novel. It has the advantage of incorporating some of the nonverbal context for ideas, leading to some ambiguity in interpretation that may not be there in the novel. It has the possibility of using visual double entendres and symbols. It may not fare as well in detailing character's thoughts and conversations, or in rich language... or perhaps it might.

In any case, my feeling is that is a different beast from either the graphic novel designation or the novel designation, and deserves a place of its own on the shelves.

If you read comics, you know that many comic authors and illustrators are less than thrilled with the "graphic novel" designation. Some see it as taking a form meant purely for enjoyment and making it fodder for dissertations. Others see it as a way for publishers to make a buck in a new and interesting way. Both criticisms are valid. However, I think it's worth looking at this process from a different angle-- perhaps a historical one.

The Gutenberg press brought books within the reach of ordinary people, but at a price. The gorgeous illuminations of the books of hours, with their many hued inks, were too expensive to mass-produce. Books became largely monochromatic. In the 1900s, better printing technology brought a resurgence of color, though mostly still limited to shorter publications--book covers, magazines, comic books, 32 page picture books, and the like.

Modern technology shrinks the price gap between black ink and colored ink, and producing full color books (though labor intensive for artists) is now reasonable. When I look at the graphic novel and hybrid/illustrated novel designations, I see a population of readers and publishers rediscovering and exploring the possibilities of combining images and text in 2-D storytelling.

These books rise out of the comic tradition in much the way that rock and roll rose out of the blues-- taking some of the same ideas, merging them with ideas from other sources, and then running in a new direction.

Will these hybrid illustrated novels eventually be re-defined as graphic novels, or find their own unique designation? Will our current understanding of graphic novels remain as it is, or return to the traditional comics designation? I wonder.

I think we will see this genre deepen and expand in the next 20 years, and I have no idea what it will bring to us-- but I'm very much looking forward to finding out.


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  • Excellent, thought-provoking post.
  • Thanks for this post. Thanks also for mentioning Ellie McDoodle, which I had never heard of before! I must get this...
    • Oh, you will *love* Ellie!
      One of the best things for my kids was the descriptions of childhood games (not the buy it at the store kind) that she peppers throughout. They tried them all...
  • Honestly, I'd never seen the book until it won. So, I started looking into it. Fascinating. I looked at his website. In the end, I ordered a copy from amazon.com last night. I am so excited to get a copy to share with my kids! This may be a good area for artist/illustrators like yourself!
    • I agree-- this is a really exciting trend! To think about how you can make the most of both sides of telling a story.... fun stuff.
  • (no subject) -
    • The Sherman Alexie book has illos!!! I had no idea. It was already on my "to read" pile, but that bumps it a lot further up the list.
      In our area, at least, the graphic novel shelves are dominated by years and years of superhero stuff, which does absolutely nothing for me. But this year I've been exploring them anyway, and occasionally they throw me a Bone(Jeff Smith-- a classic). Or a Stardust. It's worth the search!
  • I love the way that you contextualize the history of this and discuss emerging forms. I think that I forget that every form of storytelling had a beginning and an evolution, even the forms that have been around for centuries, and so we shouldn't be afraid to accept the new.
    • I agree--and it's nice to have a "frontier" anywhere, in an age where so much of what you see feels like the same old same old.
  • Graphic Novels

    (Anonymous)
    I don't think Hugo Cabret will ever be seen as a graphic novel, mostly because graphic novels have certain conventions that are absent in Hugo Cabret. The arrival is very much a graphic novel. I think they all fall under the umbrella of illustrated story and we souldn't put them in boxes. Something that is exciting to me is the fact that great pictures in a book make it more special and it seems less likely to me that this type of book will end up being entirely digital.
    • Re: Graphic Novels

      Interesting idea! Though digital art has made great strides... in some ways, I find it so much easier to "read" image heavy books in e-form-- I might be more willing to use an image heavy text online.
      I do agree that pictures make a story more special-- so I'm so glad to see this genre on the rise!
  • Since I have never read Hugo Cabret, I cannot judge whether it a novel with pictures or a comic with prose. An interesting example where the artist switches from a standard comic to a written narrative is Mark Oakley's "Thieves & Kings".





    The only thing is that he has both. If the entire book was like the second example, I might question it being a true comic or graphic novel. HOWEVER, Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics probably has a more liberal view.



    The balance of words per images is not defined in his definition. This broadens what can be considered comics and not. In his opinion, how-to books that illustrate step-by-step might be considered comics. However I still believe there is a point between drawing an illustration for a story and actually telling the story WITH pictures. Not that all comics need to tell a story ...



    Out of curiosity, have you read the works of McCloud and Will Eisner>
    • Yes-- it really is a sticky issue, isn't it? You use a good example here(and I love Scott McCloud's books).

      I mainly think it's a shame when our definitions of genre have a reductionist effect on people's work. I love the hybrids!
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