Monday, December 03, 2012

I don't normally respond to the mainstream newspapers writing about comics and graphic novels but I read a piece by Giles Coren on the Spectator website, published on 1st December, that made me want to write something here. He takes issue in his column about the Man Booker Prize shortlisting graphic novels in this year's awards. Interestingly, when I read it the first time, I thought it was just a negative criticism of the comic form but reading it again, its satirical intentions are a little bit clearer. Here's two paragraphs taken from Coren's piece:

"For a start, they are called comics. They do not need po-faced euphemism. Nobody calls them ‘graphic novels’ any more. Nobody except teenage boys trying to slip hentai manga past school security. In America, which is the home of the genre, they are called more often ‘comic books’, spoken as if all one word, and with an East Coast accent (since that is whence they come), so: ‘-karmicbwurks’.
To call them graphic novels is to presume that the novel is in some way ‘higher’ than the karmicbwurk, and that only by being thought of as a sort of novel can it be understood as an art form. As if Art Spiegelman’s two-volume envisioning of the Nazi Holocaust as an attempted elimination of mice by cats (the aforementioned ‘greatest work of art by any human hand’) can be dignified in some way by inclusion among things made by Dawn French, Jeffrey Archer and Alan Titchmarsh."
The phrase "graphic novels" was coined because comics weren't getting the sort of respect that the man who coined this phrase, Will Eisner, felt that some of them deserved. There has become a difference between "comics" and "graphic novels". The former are the 32 page monthly magazine format whereas the latter refers to a longer format object with a spine and sometimes a longer project presented as a graphic novel rather than as a monthly series and then reprinted.
It is obvious, even in the rather clumsy way that Giles Coren puts his argument across here, that he is a fan of the form. However, I would take issue at one of his column paragraphs:
"They are basically for -children, and for men (yes, men, really, men) who are a bit too thick to read proper books, as I was for many years, and still sometimes am, like if I’m tired or hungover or on a plane."
This might have been the case twenty years ago but now comics and especially graphic novels are read by a cross section of people, men, women and those who are well-read, who read a diet of everything from literary fiction to comics. It is arguable that we are living in a golden age of quality graphic novels: just go into Gosh in London or any other quality comic shop, you will see shelf upon shelf of intelligent, erudite and broad comic reading material. 
I have read comics for about thirty years now and I also read novels from the likes of Hemingway, Graham Greene, Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler. There are things you can do in graphic novels that are either very hard or nigh on impossible to do in prose. I do enjoy novels though as I have been a voracious reader since I was a child and I would miss my hit of prose too.
I get the sense that the sentence I just quoted is purely in there to incense the reader and get Giles Coren a few more visitors to his blog. It's lazy and inaccurate and something that doesn't hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Ironically the rest of the piece makes a decent stab at what Coren is actually trying to say: that literary prizes are actually meaningless and graphic novels don't need them.
Despite the case that this may well be true, attracting attention outside of the comics industry may drive the mainstream reader to pick up work by Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Bryan Talbot and Daniel Clowes and this can only be a good thing.
Giles Coren is a competent journalist but he has come unstuck here and since the column has incensed a number of people in the comics industry, perhaps he should research his columns more thoroughly before he submits them for publication, whether in print or online.
Here's the link if you wanted to read what he said

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