Graphic Novels

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Graphic Novels:
Literature without Text?
Jan Baetens

Literary graphic novels: adaptation, illustration, collaboration, and beyond More and more, the hype surrounding the graphic novel concerns its literary qualities. Many graphic novels appear to have a literary subtext (in the case of adaptations) or present themselves, in a more radical form, as the visual development of a literary text that is completely reproduced within the graphic novel. In the former case, the literary graphic novel takes the form of an adaptation, as one may adapt a book on screen (think of David Mazzuchelli’s version of City of Glass1). Various major mainstream publishers in France, the world leader in serious comics and graphic novel production, have now specialized series in this field.2 All these series are strongly and explicitly inspired by the pioneering work by authors such as Dino Battaglia (who adapted, for example, Maupassant), Alberto Breccia (who made extremely creative reinterpretations of, among others, Poe and Lovecraft), or Jacques Tardi (well known for his work on the detective novels by Léo Malet, for instance). In the latter case, the graphic novel takes the form of an illustrated version of the original text. The French publisher Petit à Petit has a series of these “word and image” books, although for obvious reasons most examples concern poetry (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Hugo, Prévert, La Fontaine) rather than prose (short stories by Maupassant). The Dutch artist Dick Matena has recently realized three “comics illustrations” of (more or less lengthy) novels by highly canonized Dutch and Flemish authors (Reve, Wolkers, Elsschot), which contrary to previous forms of novelistic works illustrated by comic artists (the LouisFerdinand Céline versions by JacquesTardi are the first example that come to mind) are real graphic novels: the layout is that of a comic book or graphic novel (in Europe the boundaries between the two genres remained blurred), with all the text included as balloons or captions, instead of being that of a traditional book containing isolated illustrations. In both cases, that of the adaptation as well as that of the illustration, the literary text precedes the graphic novel, which helps to distinguish this (double) subgenre from another type of graphic novel that is also quite popular today, namely the collaboration between a graphic artist and a scriptwriter with a literary background (more and more authors are invited to write original scenarios, or they are hired to adapt other literary texts; a good example of this is the rewriting of Moby Dick by Jean Rouaud, who collaborated on the story with the Belgian artist Denis Deprez). It is of course not absurd to enlarge the subgenre of the “liter-

English Language Notes 46.2 Fall / Winter 2008

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English Language Notes 46.2 Fall / Winter 2008

ary graphic novel” so that it can include this third subgroup as well. However, the discussion of the graphic novel as a literary genre goes well beyond these clear cases of a direct link between a literary model and a graphic interpretation. Authors such as Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth 3), Adrian Tomine (Summer Blonde 4), Charles Burns (Black Hole 5), Daniel Clowes (Ghost World 6), Craig Thompson (Blankets 7), whose models are not primarily literary in the traditional sense of the word, are nowadays also read from a literary viewpoint. It is this point, namely the literary interpretation of work that, at first sight, has nothing literary in it, that I would like to discuss in this article. In order to do so, I will focus on two types of arguments that are often found in criticism on the topic: negative criticism, i.e. criticism stressing the flaws of the graphic novel, and positive criticism, i.e., criticism underlying the specific qualities and possibilities of the genre. It is the combined reading of these two approaches of the graphic novel that may offer new insights into...
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