January 15th, 2008

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A Post on the Joys of the Illustrated Novel


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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