Sequence, image and story are the key elements of what makes a graphic novel a graphic novel, and this idea of sequence, image, story is the basis for our new exhibition, GRAPHIX, a survey of contemporary graphic novels (and some historic ones, too).
Artist Will Eisner popularized the name “graphic novel” in describing his seminal 1978 book A Contract with God. By then, Eisner had been a popular comic book artist for decades. What Eisner was perhaps trying to convey with this new term is that Contract was somehow more than a comic book. Its stories were not the stuff of typical comic books.
The term itself is thought to have been coined by Richard Kyle, a comics critic, in 1964, but it’s rather impossible to name the first graphic novel. It’s a genre that developed over time, a genre rooted, of course, in comics. Think of comics and immediately superheroes come to mind, and certainly superheroes come up often in graphic novels. But underground comics, known as comix, began to play into the genre, too. Artists like Robert Crumb led a movement in the 1960s that created an alternative to comics culture (in other words, an alternative to superheroes), and this, too, has had a huge impact on the development of the graphic novel.
An amazing thing happened in 1986, when not just one or two but three graphic novels exploded onto bestseller lists: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Dave Gibbons & Alan Moore, both of which came out of the superhero tradition, and, of course, Maus by Art Spiegelman, perhaps the most famous graphic novel to date. This unprecedented triple play led to media coverage and an air of respectability, giving the graphic novel a prominent place in bookstores. That popularity continues to grow today.
Jonas McCaffery, JCBA Student Assistant and curator of the GRAPHIX exhibition, is a long-time fan of the format. "My goal with the exhibition is to broaden the viewer's mind on the narrative power of the graphic novel," says McCaffery, " and also to show how the graphic novel is much more than one sort of structure or story." In fact, the exhibition discusses graphic novels in terms of the genre's many categories: adventure, crime mystery, fantasy, fiction and nonfiction, horror, humor, science fiction, war, and, of course, super heroes.
Though most of the pieces on exhibit are contemporary, some are reprints of older works (one entire case is filled with the work of Winsor McCay, whose Little Nemo in Slumberland began its publication run in the New York Herald in 1906). The oldest original work in the exhibition is by American artist Lynd Ward: his original 1929 novel in pictures Gods' Man is on display in the Main Lobby of the library. "Ward has had a strong influence on graphic novels, especially on artists like Eric Drooker and Shawn Tan," says McCaffery. "Even before graphic novels were around, Lynd Ward was making them."
One of the curator's favorites in the exhibition is the 2007 graphic novel Signal to Noise, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean, in which a filmmaker who is diagnosed with terminal cancer debates whether or not to write his last screenplay. "It's a strong case for how the graphic novel works stories in a way that a regular book or a piece of art can't. We can visually see what the main character is thinking, rather than just reading a description of his thoughts. It's kind of like a movie, and the artwork in the book sometimes seems like it's breaking down... much like the main character's life, and his drive and spirit."
One general misconception about graphic novels is that they are merely stories that are told in words and pictures. But it's not just about a narrative told in pictures. "It's that sequence that really moves the narrative forward," says McCaffery. "And that's really what this exhibition is about. If you took a panel out of any of these books, it's something less than it was intended to be. It's the sequencing that really makes a graphic novel a graphic novel." Oddly enough, the same could be said of any movie: Look at any one still from the film and it is simply a picture. Show them in rapid sequence, though, and suddenly the images are transformed into something larger.
Early Spring 2013
Late Fall/Early Spring, 2010/2011