Comics or graphic novels? The great debate

Joe Sutliff Sanders is University Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, where he specialises in children’s literature, especially nonfiction, animation, and, yes, comics. His most recent book is A Literature of Questions:  Nonfiction for the Critical Child (Minnesota, 2018). This post was originally published on the Education Faculty Library blog on 11 October, 2018.

As the librarians at the Faculty of Education have kept up with new movements in research and teaching, they came across a controversy that they weren’t expecting. They asked my opinion, and, luckily or not, I had opinions.

The controversy has to do with comic books, a kind of literature that has become increasingly central to popular culture and for which educators have been finding promising uses. The controversy is this: what should we call them?

The question might sound trivial, but for me, the answer matters. There was a time when comics were ignored at best (and vilified at worst), but today, to show a certain literary open-mindedness, many prefer the term ‘graphic novels,’ a kindness that recognises the artistic achievements of the form. It is a kindness, but I have to confess that I don’t like it.

From the first recorded instance of the term up through today, ‘graphic novel’ has signified a certain class of comics, ones that were good for you, ones that had literary pretensions. And don’t get me wrong: I love that sort of comic: Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, Exit Wounds, everything by Guy Delisle, Jiro Taniguchi, and the Hernandez brothers…and too many others to mention.

But since at least the early twentieth century, there has been something rebellious about comic books, something secret and delightful about those pulpy magazines, bought with pocket money out of sight of parents and teachers. ‘Graphic novels’ tames that rebellion, brings comics into a safer jurisdiction.

I like that the term graphic novel is respectful. I don’t like that it’s respectable. When you visit the Library at our Faculty, then, you’ll find the graphic novels under the name ‘comics,’ and that’s my fault. We study them, teach them, admire them, respect them. We’re also careful not to be too respectable while we’re at it.

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