Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Shirley it is a graphic novel.

A thing is what it is. When persons argue about what to call it, what they are really talking about is their relationship to it. For instance, Person A: is he a friend or an enemy? Obviously there is no absolute answer; it depends on where you’re standing.

And you’re standing on a shifting funhouse floor. At least where matters of artistic culture are concerned.

Take Illustration.

To the present day art world, anything figurative is likely to be regarded as illustration, anything in fact that refers to something outside of itself. Thus a painting that refers to actual things in the world outside of the materials of the painting, its pigments and canvas surface, may be said to be illustrative.

Illustration was once the most important thing in art. In the mid-Victorian era, knowing the classics and being able to quote and recite poetry was the mark of an educated person. The visual arts did this too, pictorially. That kind of art still has its adherents of course. The Art Renewal site has done a marvellous job of rescuing the art that fell through the cracks after modernism arrived: “Nothing has been more restricting and debilitating than the theories of modernism…” This site has a huge display (and is adding all the time) of forty works by Jules Lefebvre, an artist I wrote at length about in my Egomania magazine (issue #1) and a copy of whose painting Chloe is hanging over our dinner table.
But after immersing myself in it, I usually start to feel that in spite of all the beauty and intelligence, there is also a kind of flat-earth mentality at work. David Apatoff is a crankier example of this kind of thinking: “Art sits back, licking its chops and waiting for the next fool who believes art can be explained rationally. I've never been that kind of fool.” I admire his proclamation that he is going to uphold the faded reputations of all those artists the world now files under ‘hack’. But then he takes pains to explain why Chris Ware is no good, and why Norman Rockwell is a better painter of light than Claude Monet. Only a philistine and a crank would think it was necessary to rubbish Monet in order to make Rockwell look good. (this guy's links may not work. It's ( jan 28 '06, jan 16, '06)
Narrative illustration found that it and 'the art world' long ago went separate ways, but its principles lived all through the modernist era in magazines. Leif Peng is a cheerful and engaging enthusiast who wants to preserve as much of it as he can. Get on his mailing list if you like to enjoy this kind of work without having some cranky geezer railing at you while you’re doing so.

From the comics point of view, illustration is apparently a bad thing. It represents redundancy.

I gleefully drew a page in my Fate of the Artist as a kick up the arse to all those who say that writing a sentence, and then putting the same information in a picture beside it, is automatically a bad thing. There has been too much pontificating about what should and shouldn’t be done in comics. In June this year I wrote a piece about Audrey Niffenegger’s List Of Illustrated Books to read at There are two ‘graphic novels’ in her list and what I liked about it was that Audrey chose to regard the graphic novel as just another kind of illustrated book. Here’s Audrey’s latest, The Adventuress. It has a peel-off label describing it as ‘A novel in pictures.” I’ve seen it filed in the graphic novel shelves at Border’s. Hayley Campbell, more of a friend to the literary famous than I’ll ever be, asked her on my behalf what she thought of that. Audrey said she didn’t call it a ‘graphic novel’ because she didn’t want to stand on anyone’s toes, imagining, I guess, that there is some kind of graphic novel community with a clear consensus on what a graphic novel is supposed to be. (in an earlier post I hinted that I have enumerated four clear concepts of the ‘graphic novel’ currently in usage and here it is in brief: a) it’s a synonym for comics, any comics. You can have a two page graphic novel, and anything that doesn't look like comics isn't in it (,Percy). b) it’s a format, i.e. comics in a book with a spine, no floppies. The floppies get rounded up and turned into a graphic novel. c) it’s a comics equivalent of the prose novel, which is to say that it’s fiction and non-fiction isn’t in it. d) It’s a new art form altogether which has its origins in the comic book, and for practical purposes let’s say that means it’s grander in ambition as well as longer in form, so the old fashioned comic book isn't in it. Thus you can see that 'a' is mutually exclusive of 'd' etc. Now, don’t get in an argument. I’m just calling it as I see it. If you favor one or other of these, keep it to yourself. Personally. I’m having nothing more to do with it, which you’ll see if you stick with my blatherings long enough.)

That was a long bloody parenthesis. We need a picture. Here’s one of Audrey taken at the famous Highgate cemetery, by Hayley Campbell. Audrey , when she's in London, likes to take the official role of a guest tour-guide in the cemetery, which contains among many other noteworthy graves, that of the other famous red-haired beauty, Lizzie Siddall, called ‘a Pre-Raphaelite supermodel’ in a recent biography, who was last exhumed in Snakes and Ladders, in itself my 48 page illustration of a spoken performance by Alan Moore. (I needed to shoehorn at least one more of my own books in here to justify this colossal writing exercise.) (and I prefer illustration to adaptation in order to steer clear of those clots who say 'adaptations don't work'. Illustrating has an undeniably long history.)

From the working illustrator's point of view, illustration is no more than the next paying job. I get the impression that Illustrators would have no interest in any of this contemplation unless it might show a way of gaining an edge on the competition.

Recently, at the British Association of Illustrators (AOI) site, I came across a description of an illustration course at Falmouth University in the UK., in connection with which someone has apparently coined the term ‘authorial illustration'.
"It is a revealing observation that an illustrator’s best work is often self-originated, or the result of deep involvement in origination and development, as opposed to fulfilling the requirements of a prescriptive brief to a pre-determined concept. With the present merging and blurring of boundaries within visual arts practice, it could well be the case that practitioners from neighbouring worlds such as Fine Art, Photography or Graphic Design will be (are?) moving into spaces traditionally the preserve of the illustrator. We feel that Illustration needs to respond to this development.”
Note the ‘blurring of boundaries'. I want to write more about that later.
As examples of ‘authorial illustration', these: “…recent work by Graham Rawle, David Shrigley, Andrzej Klimowski and Sara Fanelli, among others. Perhaps the most significant achievement has been Chris Ware’s, in winning the Guardian First Book Award with his graphic novel "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.”
Note that, as in Audrey’s list, the graphic novel (Ware) is positioned as simply an illustrated book among other illustrated books..

Steve Braund is the man behind all of this , and also the man behind Atlantic Press, publisher of The Funeral by Barnaby Richards, (see right, copyright Richards) described in the publisher’s catalogue as a “Comic Book, 20 page softback, staple bound… edition of 1000 copies”. I wrote and asked him where this idea came from.
“…the term 'authorial illustration'... began to appear in the UK about 10 or 12 years ago and really struck a chord with me. I'd done a small book, 'Something Amiss on the Moor' which seemed to me to be a piece of 'authorial illustration' after many years of commercially prescriptive work.There were a few articles back then by Veronique Vienne, Ric Poynor (Eye) and Robert Mason which used this term.”
I haven’t read any of the above names, but I note that Vienne wrote the recent monograph on Chip Kidd
Braund guest-edited an issue of the AOI Journal which is very revealing if you want to pursue this line of enquiry further. Graham Rawle talks about his work (as will I further down the track) and there is a review of Kochalka. Plus Franciszka Themerson, Martin Tom Dieck, Illustrators and comics people, all mixed up together.

And what is my point? it is that I have become very interested in the blurred areas between one thing and another, and I have a lot more to say on the subject.

But for all those who canna take it, tomorrow I shall go back to being a smartarse.



Blogger spacedlaw said...

And to think that Becassine never realized she was the heroine of a graphic novel !
I think that is just nonsense to help people who are reading comics feel like they are reading serious stuff instead of things they have stolen from their kids. (but that's just the French speaking - we don't really care what it's called as long as it has a good story and a good drawing).

6 December 2006 at 07:38:00 GMT-5  
Blogger misterzed said...

Greetings Eddie.....been a while.
thanks for the post. cheered me to no end.

6 December 2006 at 08:51:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I used to work with Barney. He ran the art section in Blackwells on Charing Cross Road (where I still am).

We have stock of some of his more recent stuff - twenty artistic / scary / enchanting things. They're all very good, but the bookshop cartoon in 'scary things' kind of implies how he felt about the job... I can give some to Hayley to give to you, if you like

I'll try and get his email address, and point him over here.


6 December 2006 at 10:15:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Rob Salkowitz said...

re: the shifting definition of illustration, a friend of mine who is a historian of photography suggests that the emergence of relatively cheap and common camera and film technology was one of the main reasons behind the movement in art from technique to style in the latter 19th century. Artists always had their styles, of course, but criticism became more conscious of individual style after pictorial art was released by technology from its obligation to represent the world in some kind of objective way. This isn't some kind of earth-shakingly original observation, but it points out the relationship between art and technology (which many artists would seem to prefer to ignore), and that's relevant to this whole question of "what is a graphic novel" since we live in an age of rapid technological change.

We got the term “graphic novel” in the late 70s, when the distinctions between bound and floppy, serious and commercial, and long-form fiction and other formats seemed more meaningful than they do today. I often take sets of floppy comics to the shop and have them bound in hardcover. What sits on my shelf? Does it matter? How about “The Plot” or “Palestine” or “Understanding Comics?” So your point is a good one, and it’s fantastic that you are in a position to tease and test the boundaries with your own work. “Fate of the Artist” is more insidiously transgressive of these stupid rules than stuff that sits more blatantly on one side of the line or the other.

I was especially encouraged by the review of Leann Sharpton’s “Was She Pretty?” in the New York Times on Sunday. The fact that this was a graphic novel/illustrated book or whatever was mentioned in passing, and the reviewer treated it like any other piece of literature. It was a mixed review, but in my mind, it was real progress.

6 December 2006 at 12:31:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

I'd be very interested in seeing more of Barney, and I presume it's too early in his career for it to get itself out here by its own steam. so if you remember, do slip an example to Hayley Campbell. And nudge her abot some other stuff she's suppose dto have sent me a while back. maybe she's waiting for christmas. (Everybody knows Hayley Campbell)

I've just got out of bed in an argumentative mood. How can you have a 'shifting definition'
definition:'serving to define, having its fixed and final form, condition of being definite'
shift: 'to change or transfer from one place, position, direction, to another."

eddie (Thanks anyhoo)

6 December 2006 at 15:43:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Leigh Walton said...

Thanks for roning this, Eddie. Mr. Apatoff is the father of a friend, so I've communicated with him a bit about comics. He introduced me to Leyendecker, which is no small thing, but I can't wrap my head around his critical stance.

Incidentally, Dave Eggers has a scathing little piece in the Yale UP book "Masters of American Comics," called "Interview With a Silly Person Who Thought Chris Ware Could Not Draw," to address just such concerns. Worth a look.

6 December 2006 at 15:51:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Phillip Smith said...

What about self-designation? A graphic novel is a publication that identifies itself as a graphic novel.


6 December 2006 at 17:49:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

had probs with that book, but Eggers ia always good, Stanley Crouch on Herriman.

I said we'll having none of that blather around here. but best to you anyhoo

6 December 2006 at 18:16:00 GMT-5  
Blogger mrjslack said...

I think Jeffrey Brown had the right idea, when he called his book "Clumsy" a novel... thus avoiding this entire argument.

My dictionary lists a novel as - adj. New, strange or unusual ( well that definition almost fits, but I guess it's not really the one we're looking for )
n. A prose narrative of considerable length, usu. having an overall pattern or plot ( sounds feasible to me ).

The "considerable length" is of course open to interpretation ( as the actress said to the bishop ), but I'd rather not open that particular can of worms.

6 December 2006 at 18:46:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...


I said NO

can you go and argue about definitions somewhere else. Go up the pub or something. Just make sure It's not the one I'm in.

6 December 2006 at 18:48:00 GMT-5  
Blogger desembrey said...

That's quite funky, Eddie. I have a print of Chloe hanging in the living room here. It was only long after I'd bought it and hung it that I learned of the history of the original. A tale worthy of a certain ageing god of wine surely. :-)

7 December 2006 at 05:23:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This doesn't have so much to do with
graphic novels vs the dictionary, but more the current state of "classical realism" and illustrative painting in my hometown, somewhere in the colder parts of North America....

7 December 2006 at 17:04:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Erik. the dictionary thing was annoyance I hope I have nipped in the bud, if somewhat rudely (I've gone back over my essay trying to figure out why i may have given the impression I was starting a semantic argument and I can't find my error). Once on that track there is no getting off it.
On the contrary, the position of narrative art in our times was my whole subject. The link you have sent is a wonderful addition to the exercise:
"Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe once called him “a master of exquisite drawing and modeling,” and then went on to criticize an altar triptych he painted as “simply kitsch, the holy figures resembling B-movie gangsters dressed in biblical robes.”


7 December 2006 at 17:31:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eddie,

Thanks so much for posting this. I'm doing a PhD looking at British comics of the early-mid 1980s. Its a cultural theory thesis as much as it is a comics one. I knew nothing about comics when I started doing this, but found them fascinating from a critical theory perspective and I've spent the last two years reading/reading up on them. If you'd be up for an email interview or something similar (that is helping me out with a bit of your time) my email address is

Many thanks,


7 December 2006 at 18:18:00 GMT-5  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home