Graphic novels: literature for the 21st century?

Saturday 19 October, 5.30pm until 6.45pm, Hammerson Room Literature Wars

With the shortlisting of two ‘graphic novels’ (one of which won) in this year’s Costa Book Awards, many commentators are claiming the ‘comics’ genre has finally come of age. ‘To me it seems obvious that graphic novels should be considered for literary awards,’ argued author and Costa judge Wendy Holden. Opponents however, took it as sign of the British literary establishment caving in yet again to ‘relevance’ and populism.

Comics have certainly travelled a long journey from superhero adventures for boys and the one-dimensional, goodie vs. baddie plotlines of the 1930s and 40s. Cartoonist Will Eisner’s tales of poor Jewish folk in a New York tenement, ‘A Contract with God and Other tenement stories’, published in the 1970s is said to have launched the graphic novel. Before then however, Eisner had been most closely associated with 1940s superhero comic strip ‘The Spirit’. By the mid-1980s, even the superhero got a makeover when Batman was recast as an ageing vigilante in Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. In 1992 Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize winning ‘Maus’, which told the story of his father’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp, broke new ground entirely by tackling the gravest of subject matter in a unique and disarming way.

The ‘comics’ genre has expanded then, to embrace almost any subject one cares to think of. But is it fair to compare graphic novels with ‘real’ literature? If not, how should we judge what is good and bad in comics? What, if anything is specific about comic books, and do they have unique storytelling possibilities? Are today’s young people more ‘visually literate’, more willing to blur the boundaries between comics and literature, and if so, might the next ‘voice of a generation’ emerge in comic rather than literary form?

Inua Ellams
poet; award-winning playwright; graphic artist; geek

Joel Janiurek
librarian; creator, Islington Comic Forum and Barbican Comic Forum

Woodrow Phoenix
author, Rumble Strip

Bernie Whelan
reviewer, Extra! Extra!; member, Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum

Niall Crowley
freelance designer and writer

Produced by
Niall Crowley freelance designer and writer
Recommended readings
Graphic novels finally win the literary limelight as two make their way onto Costa Book awards shortlist

Bryan Talbot's graphic memoir Dotter of Her Father's Eyes and Days of the Bagnold Summer by Jeff Winterhart are both nominated

Adam Sherwin, Independent, 20 November 2012

Comics - Reaching the Parts Other Literature Can't Reach

As a comics practitioner, I've learnt the expression that crosses people's faces that requires the immediate response

Hannah Berry, Huffington Post, 13 November 2012

Western canon to be rewritten as three-volume graphic novel

Robert Crumb and Will Eisner among 130 illustrators contributing to 1,344-page condensation of all western – and some oriental – literature

Alison Flood, Guardian, 8 February 2012

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