Report on the Senior College Colloquium on the Modern Graphic Novel

1 December 2016, Senior College Centre

Prepared by Edna Hajnal

Five participants, including moderator Philip Sullivan and reporter Edna Hajnal.

Background Information and Readings suggested and circulated to participants by Peter Hajnal:

On graphic novels in general:

* Wikipedia has an article providing: definition of the term; history of the graphic novel from the 1920s; criticism; and bibliography and further links to other sources. <> <>

* Paul Gravett. Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know. New York: Collins Design, 2005

Stephen Weiner and Chris Couch. Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel. New York: NBM Publishing, 2012


Columbia University Library’s research guide to the graphic novel (somewhat dated)


On Chris Ware’s graphic novels:

On Maus, two-part interview with Art Spiegelman:



The discussion focused mainly on the questions suggested by Peter Hajnal:

1. Why did this genre emerge? Due to which factors: cultural, literary, others?
2. Is there a valid distinction between comics and the graphic novel?
3. Are graphic novels likely to grow in readership and impact?

The group considered several definitions, including those of Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, and the Columbia University Library Research Guide. Some critics have contended that “graphic novel” is merely a marketing term. Columbia’s seemed the most satisfactory: “bound narratives that tell a story through sequential art with or without text”. Two prominent graphic works were noted: Maus, by Art Spiegelman, and Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. Neither is strictly a novel; the basis for both is biography/autobiography, history, and culture. They are literary non-fiction. Each is a narrative of a specific time historically, of a specific place, and of a specific period culturally, and the sequential graphics picture these elements. A recent Canadian example is Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire’s Secret Path with Downie’s poetry (lyrics to his music), and the bold drawings of Lemire tell the tragic story of Chanie Wenjack. It is based on the true story of a twelve-year old boy who died fleeing from residential school for home, a specific place, time and culture. The graphic narrative makes it possible for a writer to tell his story for which words alone are inadequate or impossible to write.

It was noted the superhero comics were generally meant for children and young adults, whereas the term “graphic novel” denotes a work designed for adult readers, often depicting adult situations and problems. The recent Margaret Atwood book, Angel Catbird, with the story about unforeseen results of genetic engineering by Atwood, illustrations by Johnnie Christmas, and typeface by Nate Piekos of Blambot is a superhero tale with an environmental message about cats and birds.

The term “graphic novel” seems to have been known in North America in the 1950s, but with the publication in 1978 of Contract with God by Will Eisner that he called a graphic novel made it better known. The stories or novellas are based on the author’s story about growing up in a tenement apartment in the Bronx with all the foibles and kindness of a neighbourhood community. Perhaps the popular television series The Simpsons is a different expression of what some of the graphic novels are doing; some graphic novels have veiled political comment and social satire.

Critical and scholarly works have been written about the graphic works by scholars as well as by the creators of these works, such as Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus. Persepolis was adapted and made into a successful film. It was noted that there was also a lively European and Asian (particularly Japanese) tradition of graphic narrative.

It was agreed that the genre would survive, and develop further with the development of new and future technologies to make it easier to move from one medium to the next one. It was also noted that today’s graphic novel includes a much stronger art background and frequently words are not used. Some works in this genre are more akin to modern art with or without text than to literature.