There’s a pretty good chance many of you have already seen Rolling Stone‘s “50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels” list. If you haven’t, I invite you to go read it before continuing on; it’s a nice profile of some of the better work in comics.
As with all such lists, even allowing them to expand to 50 titles means some beloved works will be left out; it’s the way the game works. This is not about complaining about the brilliant comics that were left off the list or some of the questionable choices that were listed among the 50 best. I’ve been a part of committees working on similar lists, and sometimes you are simply outvoted while other times you know everyone already knows they should be reading a title and feel justified in giving the spot to a comic that could use a few seconds in the spotlight.
This is about a use of language that is perpetuating a high-art/low-art dichotomy in the realm of comics. It’s about the separation of the superhero from the art form in an attempt to legitimize it and strip away the history of comic books being storytelling for children. It is rare to find a site that covers sequential art critically that also treats superhero comics with the same respect as what many would refer to as “graphic novels.”
The term is one I am not particularly fond of for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that I have heard the sneer of “this isn’t a comic, it’s a graphic novel” more times than I would like to count. It’s a term brandished to give an air of legitimacy to a medium that is already legitimate in its own right. It’s a term used by booksellers; ask any writer whether they would market their book as a short story or poem collection or a “novel in stories (or poems)” and don’t be surprised when they inform you that marketing shows that calling a book a novel boosts its sales. It’s a term used to otherize and divide a medium.
Interestingly, limiting themselves to only selecting the nebulously-defined “graphic novels” wasn’t enough for Rolling Stone; they had to segregate the superheroes from the bunch. You can’t have the cape and tights crowd popping up in your list of high-art graphic novels about a samurai rabbit or a modern retelling of Astroboy.
God forbid they get in the way of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s hilarious and touching sex comedy or Chester Brown’s autobiographical tale of engaging in the services of sex workers (hey, can it still be called a graphic novel if it’s non-fiction?). These are graphic novels—they are for adults goddammit—and if they had to put The Dark Knight Returns on the list, it would poison their credibility as critics! Who can take their list seriously if they have a man dressed up as a bat?
Segregating superheroes off to a comic book ghetto and ignoring the successful stories told in the genre is a kind of gatekeeping, as is the insistence upon referring to comic books as graphic novels. It is a closed-minded behavior that does nothing for the medium, the critics, the creators, or the fans except boost the ego of those insisting on perpetuating the high-art/low-art literary/genre dichotomy.
The stereotypes about comics and comics fans are breaking down, but it’s happening slowly. I know it can seem tempting to want to distance yourself from a stereotype you might find unappealing, and insisting that you read graphic novels instead of comics is certainly a way to push that stereotype away from you. But it’s no better than insisting that there is a measure of authenticity associated with someone’s affection for a subject, no better than perpetuating the idea of a fake fan or a fake geek girl. All it is is a childish attempt at otherizing something you find unpleasant when the fact is that it’s all just comics, whether you like it or not.
It’s all comics.
David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.