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What is a Graphic Novel: Defining Stardust
by Hank Luttrell
Stardust - graphic novel
Stardust - novel
Stardust - movie
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A favorite book of mine was made into a movie recently. As is usually the case, the book is much better than the movie, but I liked the movie as well. The book, and the movie, are titled Stardust, and the book was written by Neil Gaiman. I understand the movie hasn't been as successful as the producers had probably hoped, but there is reason to believe that the movie will continue to earn money for many years, and will eventually be profitable in the world market, and as a DVD release. The movie has gotten mostly favorable notices by the reviewers that I've read, but, and here I want to make a complaint, every review I've seen has made the same mistake. The book by Neil Gaiman has universally been referred to as a graphic novel. (Special credit goes to Rick Norwood's review of the movie; Rick obviously has read the book!)

I'll admit that the situation with Gaiman's novel is confusing. There are even some issues which involve definitions and nomenclature. But these are the facts: Stardust was first published as a serial, in a format that resembled four issues of a square bound comic book, by the comic book publisher DC, which had a long history of publishing fantastic and best-selling graphic novels and comic books by Neil Gaiman. But Stardust was a novel in text form, what librarians like to call a chapter book, sumptuously illustrated by Charles Vess. Stardust was later collected into several book editions, including the Vess illustrations, again published by DC. Gaiman retained all the rights to his writing, while DC owned the Vess artwork. So Gaiman was able to sell the rights for text-only editions of Stardust, the first of which was published by an imprint known as Spike, part of Avon Books. These text-only editions differ little from the DC texts. Gaiman explained to me that he felt some sections needed more description to stand alone, without the art. I've read that the text-only Stardust is currently in print from Harper, in a version which is said to contain more material, but I haven't seen this edition.

I'm probably just being short tempered when I'm irritated by reviewers making assertions about stuff they really don't know. It is a confusing situation, after all. And it raises a question which perplexes many people. Just what is the correct name for a book which collects a bunch of comic strips or comic books? So far, I've been assuming that the correct nomenclature is, in fact "graphic novel," and I think this phrase is widely understood by readers, booksellers and librarians. But just a moment… what is a "comic book" then? Well, we all know that, but we also know that it isn't necessarily comic, or humorous, since many comic books are anything but funny, and they are only books in the most general sort of way. I like to call traditional comic books pamphlets or periodicals, but I have colleagues who like to call them "floppies." A graphic novel is a square bound comic book, a comic book with a spine.

Will Eisner, one of the greatest comic book creators of all time, possibly the inventor of the modern graphic novel, and also a thoughtful commentator on the field, coined the phrase "sequential art storytelling" to refer to all types of comic books, with or without spines, and also including newspaper comic strips. This label refers to the technique used to tell a story, a series of drawings or artworks, usually in combination with text, words, integrated into the art, although it is also very possible to create narrative with art using pantomime. This is a very useful phrase and concept, although perhaps a bit formal, and too much of a mouthful for everyday use.

So are those reviewers correct when they call Gaiman's Stardust a graphic novel? I hope not, since if that is true, then all those illustrated editions of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, or the new Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien with the wonderful Alan Lee paintings are also graphic novels, as are all the other elaborately illustrated chapter books we remember reading so fondly. We are left without a useful label to identify books which use sequential art storytelling, which more thoroughly integrates art and narrative.

Actually I have reservations about the phrase "graphic novel." In some cases it is perfectly accurate. A novel is a long form text story, a book length text fiction. And some book collections of comics are exactly that, long form comic book stories. But many "graphic novels" are actually collections of unrelated or only slightly related short comic book stories, anthologies or collections if you will, and not novels at all. There is a more general phrase I like to use which includes both these anthologies and graphic novels, and that is "graphic album."

Let's not even get started about another source of confusion, in which misguided readers assume that "graphic novels" means comic books with salacious or erotic content, that is, "graphic" content.

Copyright © 2007 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.


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