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April 14, 2008

There's No Such Thing as a Graphic Novel

[From the drawing board of Cyril Pedrosa]


That was probably a bad way to start my blog entry. I already regret it bitterly. I would've been better off talking about the arrival of spring or rambling about French trains. Telling you that I'm uncomfortably seated on seat 27, aisle side, heading towards a small town on the Atlantic coast of France where, with the pretext of signing some copies of Three Shadows at the local bookstore, I'm mainly hoping to stretch out as much as I can the pleasure of having lunch at a restaurant facing the port, praying that they'll still have some room for smokers on the terrace…

But what can I say, I got myself stuck in this argument about graphic novels being non-existent.

Before Three Shadows came out in France, I was a comics artist in the specifically European sense of being an author of bandes dessinées. For most people, especially in France and Belgium, that would mean that you tell stories in 46-page oversized (8¼" by 11.7") hardcover books produced on high-quality paper with beautiful colors, and that the main purpose of these stories is to entertain readers.


And for a long time I too believed that my job consisted of telling colorful and entertaining stories in that format of 46-page oversized hardcover books. Perhaps it was because I had fond memories of escaping as a kid in the pages of Asterix, Le journal de Mickey or Gaston Lagaffe, or because my studies were in totally different fields (mathematics, advertising and animation), but whatever the excuses the sad truth is that, when my first books came out, I hadn't given much thought to the form of comics.

I had no particular viewpoint, so I focused on my drawing, wanting to make it as pretty and attractive as possible, but with a hint of originality that would mark my territory and create a style of my own. I produced books the way a carpenter might produce chairs, with a love of good craftsmanship. In the eyes of my French-speaking peers, I was a comics author, since I published nice attractive books in the format I've just described. But I saw myself more as an illustrator of comics, something in fact quite different, though I didn't realize it fully at the time.


But as I worked on my first books based on scripts by my old friend David Chauvel, I was carefully following the work of Blutch, Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, David B, Nicolas de Crécy, Emmanuel Guibert, and many others, and I had to admit to myself that I was an idiot — a nice, friendly idiot, I hope, one who worked on his books with care and diligence, but an idiot nonetheless.

Those talented, thoughtful, inventive people had an artistic maturity far greater than mine. They burst out of established forms and came up with a wealth of innovative ways of drawing and radically new subject matter. In the end their books changed my life. They managed to make me understand that comics are a language, a language with rules that you can and should break, and in which you can and should invent your own words, your own syntax. A language that can encompass everything, as long as you take the trouble to think things through until you find the form, new or old, that suits what it is you want to express — a language that doesn't want to be confined to any mold, like that damn 46-page glossy hardcover format.


Since then, little by little, book after book, I try, with varying degrees of success, to be less an illustrator of comics than someone who plays with the language of the comics medium. In that, I’m convinced that graphic form has to contribute as much to storytelling as do the well-known narrative tools of angles (close-ups, reverse angles and so on) or the skillful use of ellipse. I think we need to subject our drawing skills to intense questioning, not with the thought of “what’s my way of representing reality?”  — which only points you to something a bit vain, called a “style,” that’s usually nothing more than a fancy name for our tics and bad habits in drawing — but rather “taking into account my limitations, my tools, my knowledge, my ability to invent and improvise, what would be the best way of representing reality in that scene, at that specific moment, with that specific emotion?” That language, that subtle interplay of forms, that delicate and invisible art of placing as much in the empty space between two panels as in the panels themselves — called comics or bande dessinée —  is something I treasure, and it’s the only one I know how to use to tell stories.


Being an author of comics is just that: telling stories through the use of that language. But it's not less than that, and I hold the language and those who use it with talent in very high esteem.

But in the past few years in France, as soon as a book of bande dessinée is something other than the 46-page color hardcover format I described, the book gets called a roman graphique, borrowing from the US term of graphic novel. I don’t know who the clever marketing whiz was that came up with the idea, but it’s clearly designed to lend a stamp of cultural approval by associating with novels, i.e. with “serious” literature for real readers, those with brains. 


I can’t judge whether there’s same association in the US, but in France the term is used very consciously, by publishers, salespeople, bookstore owners, critics and even sometimes the authors themselves, to highlight to potential readers that this book is a quality product that will stimulate their neurons and not some trashy little comic book. Since Three Shadows came out, I’ve been awarded, probably temporarily, the title of graphic novel auteur. One reporter who interviewed me explained that the book had to be a graphic novel, since its layout and number of pages gave it "the look of a novel." I replied that I could show him some cookbooks that look a lot like Three Shadows, but nobody’s suggested calling it a “graphic cookbook”!

Saying and thinking that gives the idea that this constantly evolving language we use is not enough, that it isn’t rich and elaborate enough, and that it needs some literary stamp of approval to have full value. It’s true that it’s easier to say that than to explain how Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan is a “total comic,” to highlight the complex representation of time in the work of Frédéric Peeters, to describe the interplay of abstract and figurative representation in the books of Hugo Pratt, and so on. Yet these “graphic novels,” as the term is used in France, owe nothing to the novel or to literature. They are pure, and often beautiful, comic books: the language they use, regardless of how inventive the forms used may be, is the language of comics. That’s what gives these creative works their power, and that’s what explains the very distinctive pleasure that their readers take in the process.


So, as far as I’m concerned, there are comic books – good or bad ones, ambitious or mediocre ones, small, thick, large ones, Japanese, Korean, Belgian or American ones. They might contain a lot of pages or just a few, color, black & white illustration, paper cutouts, digital pictures or whatnot. But all of them draw upon the same language, a language so subtle that a number of readers will only stay in the doorway of those books and won’t see the jewels inside.

But there’s no such thing as a graphic novel.



Hi there, I really enjoyed your blog. I know this is a long shot, but would it be possible to contact you via email? I am an illustration student in Cardiff, Wales and I have a project in which I have to interview an admirable figure in the creative world, and I cannot get enough of your work. I have a brief, which we won't be starting until next year, but I want to get stuck in and get started just in case it is not possible for me contact you, I will have time to find some one else. I really hope this reaches you, and finds you well. Naomi Hermitage

[email protected]

great read ... and I love the sketches!!!


Well, I guess I'm in the minority here in thinking that maybe you should have started your blog "To me, there is no such thing as a graphic novel". Noted comic author Donna Barr actually prefers to call them "drawn books".

Graphic novel is simply a term of distinction between a novel (a story told only with words) and a story told with words AND artwork. A graphic novel. The stories each tells be they romance, mysteries, adventure, science fiction, or even a superhero tale are really no different. Just they way in which each chooses to tell it's tale. I consider myself a graphic novelist. I like that distinction. :)

Nice article, though. :)

Darryl Hughes
"G.A.A.K: Groovy Ass Alien Kreatures"

Thank you for such a nice piece of writing! I'm learning a lot from this. I'm really enjoying your sketches, too.

yes, this is all true, and something that not many folk quite understand. it's the reason comics in the past have been so... limited and up until very recently quite dull! I think in the end after a huge debate you jsut have to go with with suits you most comfortably :) 'graphic novel' really is just another way to tell stoires- it is most certain that it is the narrative and the way the story is told that is most important to a comic. those are the only comics i feel comfortable reading, anyway. people certainly should be seppting outmore than they do, and experimenting with the use of panels, narrative, everything =). I think once people do, the comics industry could really spread to a whole new audience you know? nicely put :D x

Thanks for these words.
It is all so true and I agree.

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