Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 7, 2001
Jan Baetens, ed. The Graphic Novel Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001. 212 pp.; few b/w ills. Paper $20.81 (9058671097)

The graphic novel, a story presented as a fully illustrated narrative, is a high-art version of the comic strip. Like the true novel, the graphic novel treats serious subjects, but using images together with words combined with pictures. The proceedings of a conference on the graphic novel held at the University of Leuven, May 2000, The Graphic Novel contains studies of such well-known graphic novels as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Jacques Tardi’s visual narratives, and some lesser-known writers, and several essays devoted to the theory of the relation between word and image in these strips James Reibman, Ed Tan, Sue Vice, Ole Frahm, and Gene Kannenberg discuss the representation of the Holocaust by Spiegelman; Laurie Kaplan, Anke Gilleir, and Michael Hein deal with images of World War One in graphic novels; Marni Sandweiss, Heike Elisabeth Jüngst, Jeffrey Lewis, Jean-Louis Tilleuil, and Libbie McQuillan present lesser-known graphic novels; and, finally, Mario Saraceni, Jack Post, and Patrick Maynard deal with theoretical issues arising in such books. This publication thus provides a rich survey of contemporary scholarship.

In general, the graphic novel (and its close relative, the comic strip) have been much less discussed by academics than either visual art or literature. There are numerous French studies devoted to semiotic theorization about comics, and an American literature discusses this art form from the perspective of cultural studies. And there are, of course, many accounts of graphic novels by popular writers. But as Jan Baetens notes in the useful Introduction, there is a certain resistance towards serious discussion of the graphic novel in America. This volume thus makes an important pioneering contribution, bringing together scholars from America and Europe and providing a variety of perspectives in mostly clear, reasonably brief essays. The book provides a rich collection of materials: stimulating discussions of the representations of violence, the Holocaust, and feminism are included. That said, a surprising number of these essays lack illustrations, which makes it very difficult to follow the argumentation, especially in the commentaries devoted to little-known comics; and a number of the contributors make very debatable claims. When, for example, Vice argues that Spiegelman’s choice of the graphic novel provides the best way to tell such his story, it is not obvious why the graphic novel is necessarily superior in this way to film. And when Frahm describes the use of flashbacks in Maus, it is not clear how this technique differs from that found in either literature or film. Kannenberg’s argument that Spiegelman’s use of animal faces for his characters is best understood by looking at uses of masks in ancient Greek theater takes the reader rather far from the immediate visual concerns of that comic.

Much of this commentary, though sophisticated in its theorization, lacks a common-sense feel for this medium. Because the graphic novel is a popular art, more needs to be said about its reception. Who buys these books, and why are they popular? How, if at all, does this audience differ from the readership of novels, or the public who look at high art in the museum? Because the action is depicted visually, the graphic novel may be easier to read than the traditional novel. But does that mean its narratives are simpler than straight novels, as some hostile critics have said, or only that they are presented differently? And what is the relationship between the audience for graphic novels and the comic strip, which we know from the daily newspaper? Most of these commentaries focus on individual graphic novels, but much could be learned by doing comparisons and by offering an historical perspective. It would be worth considering, for example, Spiegelman’s sources and comparing Maus with other representations of the Holocaust. Dealing with those questions might help explain why this one graphic novel became a justly famous bestseller.

In general, graphic novels raise a special problem that is discussed but not really resolved by the participants in this volume. Is this art form, which synthesizes words and images, best understood as a form of literature with illustration, or is it an illustration containing words? Or, rather (as I think), must it be analyzed within its own terms, as an art in which word and image can play equal roles? Some of the commentaries in this book look at the narratives of comics, while others study the images. But as yet, there is no adequate discussion of the ways in which the graphic novel pulls together language and pictures. McQuillan says something of this question, and so her analysis deserves working out in more detail. Post has interesting remarks about a hypertext, which is not, in fact, really a graphic novel at all. Maynard offers a very subtle account of the representation of time in images, but his account says nothing explicitly about how to apply his analysis to the graphic novel. What is required at this time, I believe, to advance the study of the graphic novel is more fully developed theorization that looks closely at a variety of examples. But it would be unjust to judge too harshly this volume, which makes a brave beginning and so should provide a good starting point for future scholars. The graphic novel and the comic strip—subtle, popular art forms—deserve the attention that academics have recently given to film and other forms of mass culture, and that literary scholars and art historians have given to high art.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar