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“But ‘comic book’ doesn’t work for what we do these days.”

In reading the Mars Import interview with Craig Thompson I came across this description of the book’s subtitle:

MI: BLANKETS bears the subtitle, “an illustrated novel.” Is this your own personal entry in the what-the-heck-should-we-call-these-things” derby, or simply a marketing decision made with bookstore sales in mind, or both?

CT: Yeah, both. It DOES sound a bit pretentious, but “comic book” just doesn’t work for what we do these days. And graphic novel doesn’t either. Neither does “illustrated novel”. But at least it’s a raw enough term that it sparks a reader’s curiosity, rather than polluting their preconceptions with images of super heroes and Garfield.

Ok, maybe I’m just being pedantic, but isn’t the important part that it’s a novel not that there are pictures inside? Anyone who picks it up sees the pictures. Blankets: A Novel would explain that it is, in fact, a cohesive story rather than, say, a chunk of collected monthly floppies from an ongoing series. When I bought The PowerBook it had the subtitle A Novel both to differentiate it from Jeanette Winterson’s nonfiction writings and to keep people from thinking it was some sort of laptop how-to. I’m not sure why the standard “graphic novel” doesn’t work for Thompson, but it seems to me that an illustrated novel is quite a different thing, and far from a “raw” concept or term. I guess I just don’t see why, when something’s being put in the graphic novels section and is clearly full of sequential art, it’s important to comment on the cover that it’s got words and pictures. It seems the more pertinent information is what the story content is, rather than its pictorial context. What am I not seeing?


  1. Steven says:

    I know if I were in charge of Craig Thompson’s subtitles for some reason, Blankets would say “A Comics Novel.” Well, or maybe not, since people might think it’s a comedic novel… But at any rate, I don’t think it’s totally pointless to distinguish between “novels” and “graphic/illustrated/comics novels,” since I think just “novel” is associated pretty strongly with prose literature. So I’d call it a comics novel, or hell, maybe just a comic book. As you say, it’s probably going to be in the “graphic novels” section, surrounded by superhero books, filled with sequential art and panels and word balloons and captions the same as the superhero books have, so I’m not sure what impression the “Illustrated Novel” subtitle would likely create other than an impression of Craig Thompson trying to separate his work from the rest of the medium, as if everything about the book didn’t already clearly and elegantly distinguish it from the 500 Uncanny X-Men books sitting next to it on the shelf.

    Actually, I think “illustrated novel” is one of the worst alternatives to “comic book” I’ve heard, since if the pictures are “illustrations,” that implies to me that they’re secondary in the text, there merely to support the words, and if anything the pictorial part of comics should be primary, since you can leave out words entirely and still have comics.

    — 11 February 2004 at 5:34 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    That was the issue I had with “illustrated novel.” I mean, I really like plenty of books with illustrations, but I don’t consider Blankets one of them. Wasn’t Gaiman’s The Dream Hunters text with facing illustrations? That sounds like it could be an illustrated novel to me, more than Thompson’s work, which really drew its strength from its images. If the words were supposed to be the primary text, supported by drawings, it would be a weak(er) work.

    I remembered, though, what this whole marketing issue reminded me of! It’s an old review in The War against Silence:

    “Speaking of music that doesn’t make you dance, this album goes out of its way to warn you that it isn’t going to, writing “A reading from Stories from the Nerve Bible” right on the cover, and, on the copy I bought, affixing an extra sticker warning of the dangerous “spoken word” material contained inside, like it was some kind of contamination that would require special handling during use. The thing, though, is that the lines between poetry, prose and music have always been pretty infrequently limed in Laurie Anderson’s work, and I almost think that her other recent album, Bright Red/Tightrope, ought just as well to have had a sticker on it warning that it contained singing and music, given her history.”

    I just don’t see why a consumer wouldn’t pay a little attention to something before tossing down $20 or more. I know I would! And if you know what you’re getting into with the most cursory glance, what is the rationale behind trumpeting the obvious?

    — 11 February 2004 at 5:50 pm (Permalink)