Over at the Comics Journal message board, an interesting discussion of the term ‘graphic novel’ and what it may be used to designate is currently buzzing. Amongst the participants is Eddie Campbell, the first cartoonist to take the term seriously since its ascendancy as a marketing gimmick. Expounding persuasively on its usefulness to describe a certain movement in his How to Be an Artist (2001) and even going so far as to write a manifesto for same, he now reckons the term broken through misuse in the media and the larger cultural context they reflect.

Initially, I was sceptical of the term, and I remain so to an extent. Already shortly after its first signifcant use, by Will Eisner for his comic A Contract with God in 1979, it started becoming corrupted as different opportunistic publishers started releasing the same genre stories they had been putting out for decades in slightly more book-like formats and calling this ‘graphic novels.’ Needless to say, this tendency has more or less taken over now, with the term being used left and right to market a wide variety of comics, most of which have little to do with what Eisner intended for the form.

Campbell may be right that reclaiming the term for a certain kind of comic is a lost cause, at least when it comes to the cultural mainstream, but I’m not sure that means we should just give it up. If nothing else, it may yet prove to be a valuable term in comics scholarship and who knows what its eventual fate will be in the cultural discourse of the future?

At any rate, I find it rather illuminating to take cues from both Eisner and Campbell and use it to describe, or at least suggest, a certain way of thinking about comics that has come to the fore in recent years, but really goes back to some of the earliest iterations of the medium more than a century and a half ago. As anyone who has struggled with the term will know, it is impossible to put it to a formula — it was, after all, at least partially conceived as a marketing tool from the beginning — but certain criteria seem helpful:

It is a way of thinking that approaches a comic as an autonomous work, more or less fully on par with similar works in literature, or with ambitions to achieve similar artistic goals as practiced in the fine arts (but does NOT concern comics that merely try to imitate these). Though one cannot totally rule out series or works in the traditional genres, these generally work against it. Preferably, it should exist as a book or at least a manageable number of volumes.

The initiator of the thread over at the Journal, Alan David Doane has taken issue with Campbell’s statement that there probably isn’t more than a few dozen bona fide graphic novels out there worth reading and posted a list of a hundred works as a refutation. Never mind that his criteria for inclusion are rather confusing, it’s an interesting exercise, and since I had to compile such a list for entirely different reasons recently, I figured I’d post it here.

It contains a fair amount of inconsistencies, at times includes lesser works for reasons of format, limits to two works from cartoonists who could easily have been represented by more, and for reasons of format lacks the short comics by R. Crumb so essential to many of today’s graphic novelists, but nevertheless charts the development of a fascinating and important tradition within comics. This is partly because it at least tries to be useful as a guide, mostly listing works that are available in self-contained book form. Also, I’m sure I’ve forgotten things I would include were I to redo the list tomorrow or the day after.

Rodolphe Töpffer: M. Pencil (1840)
Gustave Doré: L’Histoire du Sainte-Russie (1854)
Frans Masereel: Mon livre d’heures (1919)
Milt Gross: He Done Her Wrong (1930)
Max Ernst: Une Semaine de bonté (1934)
Charlotte Salomon: Leben? oder Theater? (1940-42)
Palle Nielsen: Orfeus & Eurydike (1955-1984)
Jules Feiffer: Passionella and Other Stories (1959)
Edward Gorey: The Willowdale Handcar, or the Return of the Black Doll (1962)
Harvey Pekar & R. Crumb: Bob and Harv’s Comix (1960s-1980s, collected 1996)
Osamu Tezuka: Hi no Tori: Ho-ô (aka. Karma, 1969-70)
Guido Crepax: Valentina con gli stivali (1970)
Jack Kirby: Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, New Gods, Mister Miracle aka. “The 4th World” (1970-1973)
Justin Green: Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972)
Keiji Nakazawa: Hodashi no Gen (aka. Barefoot Gen, 1973-1974/????)
Hariton Pushwagner: Soft City (1973-?, published 2008)
Jacques Tardi: Le Véritable histoire du soldat inconnu (1974)
Osamu Tezuka: Buddha (1974-1984)
Martin Vaughn-James: The Cage (1975)
Claus Deleuran: Rejsen til Saturn (1976)
Moebius: Major Fatal aka. Le Garage Hermétique (1976-1980)
Palle Nielsen: Katalog (aka. Scenario, 1977-1981)
Carlos Gimenez: Paracuellos (1977-1982/1999-2003)
Will Eisner: A Contract with God (1978)
Lat: Kampung Boy (1979)
Hugo Pratt: La Casa dorata di Samarcanda (1980)
Pierre Christin & Enki Bilal: Partie de chasse (1983)
Eddie Campbell: Alec (1980-) in The Alec Omnibus (2008)
José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo: Le Bar à Joe (aka. “Joe’s Bar,” 1981, 1987, 2002)
Hayao Miyazaki: Kaze no Tani no Nausika (aka. Nausicäa of the Valley of Wind, 1982-1994)
Alberto Breccia & Juan Sasturain: Perramus (1983)
Dave Sim: Cerebus: Church & State (1983-1988)
Hideshi Hino: Jigokuhen (aka. Panorama of Hell, 1980s)
Yoshiharu Tsuge: Munô no Hito (aka. L’Homme sans talent, 1984-1985)
Natsuo Sekikawa & Jirô Taniguchi: Botchan no Jidai (aka. The Times of Botchan, 1984-1991)
Suehiro Maruo: Shôjo Tsubaki (aka. Dr. Araki’s Amazing Freak Show, 1984)
Gary Panter: Jimbo — Adventures in Paradise (1988)
Gilbert Hernandez: Love & Rockets (1980s/1990s) in Palomar (2003)
Jaime Hernandez: Love & Rockets (1980s/1990s) in Locas (2004)
Frank Miller: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons: Watchmen (1986-87)
Art Spiegelman: Maus (1986/1992)
Hugo Pratt: Elvetiche (1987)
Will Eisner: A Life Force (1988)
Peter Bagge: Buddy Bradley in Hate! (late 1980s-1990s) in Buddy Does Seattle (2005) & Buddy Does Jersey (2007)
Chester Brown: “Fuck” (early 1990s) in I Never Liked You (1994)
Dave McKean: Cages (1990-1996/1998)
Chris Reynolds: Mauretania (1991)
Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell: From Hell (1991-1996)
Jeff Smith: Bone (1991-2004)
Shigeru Mizuki: Nononbâ (1992)
Jim Woodring: “Frank” (1992-) in The Frank Book (2003)
Jacques Tardi: C’Était la guerre des tranchées (aka. The War of the Trenches, 1993)
David Mazzucchelli: “Big Man” (1993)
Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1993)
Hisashi Sagakuchi: Akkanbe Ikkyû (1993)
Daniel Clowes: Ghost World (1993-1997/1997)
Joe Sacco: Palestine (1993-1995/2001)
Charles Burns: Black Hole (1993-2004/2005)
Peter Kielland: Fisk (aka. Fish, 1994)
Baru: L’Autoroute du soleil (1995)
Jean-Christophe Menu: Livret de Phamille (1995)
Vincent Fortemps: Cimes (1995)
Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth (1995-2000/2000)
David B.: L’Ascension du haut mal (aka. Epileptic, 1996-2003)
Fabrice Neaud: Journal (1996-2003)
Martin tom Dieck: Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt (1997)
Emmanuel Guibert: La Guerre d’Alan (aka. Alan’s War, 1997-)
Raymond Briggs: Ethel and Ernest (1998)
Ben Katchor: The Jew of New York (1998)
Anke Feuchtenberger: Somnambule (1998)
Posy Simmonds: Gemma Bovery (1999)
Jason: Vent litt… (aka. Hey Wait… 1999)
Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis (1999-2003)
Anders Nilsen: Big Questions (1999-)
Joe Sacco: Safe Area Gorazde (2000)
John Porcellino: Perfect Example (2001)
Kevin Huizenga: Gloriana (2001)
Joann Sfar: Pascin (2000-2002/2006)
Kim Deitch & Simon Deitch: Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2002)
Edmond Baudoin: Le Chemin de Saint-Jean (2002)
Phoebe Gloeckner: Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002)
Killoffer: 676 Apparitions de Killoffer (aka. 676 Apparitions of Killoffer, 2002)
Aristophane: Les Soeurs Zabime (2002)
Grant Morrison, Gary Erskine & Chris Weston: The Filth (2002-2003)
Chester Brown: Louis Riel (2003)
Mat Brinkman: Terratoid Heights (2003)
Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefêvre & Fréderic Lemercier: Le Photographe (2003-2007)
Gary Panter: Jimbo in Purgatory (2004)
Daisuke Igarashi: Hanashipanashi (2004)
Yuichi Yokoyama: New Engineering (200?)
Daniel Clowes: Ice Haven (2005)
Anke Feuchtenberger: Die Hure H wirft der Handschuh (2006)
Lewis Trondheim: Désouevré (2006)
Stéphane Blanquet: La Vénéneuse au deux épérons (2006)
Kevin Huizenga: Curses (2006)
Brian Chippendale: Ninja (2006)
Shin’ichi Abe: Un Gentil garcon (2007)
Dominique Goblet: Faire semblant c’est mentir (2007)
Dash Shaw: Bottomless Bellybutton (2008)

Image from Doré’s L’Histoire du Sainte-Russie. The discussion continues here, with input from comics critic Xavier Guilbert.