The Novel in Graphic Novel – Where Do We Draw the Line?

In our discussion of what makes a comic/graphic novel, we looked at several definitions, some of which seemed pretty solid. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” This is a rather serviceable, if simple and in the case of one-panel comics somewhat exclusionary, definition. What’s also interesting about McCloud’s definition, though, is what it includes. If we accept that sequential juxtaposed images are essentially what are needed to make a graphic novel, then certain stories that we would typically consider to be prose novels could fit into the graphic novel category. In particular, McCloud’s definition makes me think of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar series, which employs many experimental methods of presenting its stories. You can’t listen to an audiobook of The Familiar without losing a lot of the effect, nor can you efficiently read it on a Kindle. Despite relying primarily on words and prose to tell its story, I think The Familiar meets the criteria we use (or at least McCloud uses) to define graphic novels. Take the four pages below, which occur as Xanther, one of the main characters, looks out into a heavy rainstorm and finds herself filled with all sorts of questions and anxieties. RaindropsRaindrops 2






Danielewski does not actually draw out raindrops – only words are used to create the effects on the page. Each “drop” is actually a question that Xanther is thinking about, so the overall effect is to show her obsession with the rain but also compare the raindrops to the questions in her head. Without the “image” of the rain, there is a significant effect that is lost in these pages. So in these pages we have the “other images” part of the definition, the “convey information” part of the definition, the “aesthetic response” part of the definition, the “juxtaposed” part of the definition (against the words that make up the drops, and the plainer words on the first two linked pages), and the “sequential” part of the definition, as the pages succeed one another to give the effect of the rain increasing in intensity. Visual effects like this are not exclusive to this scene – they pepper the book, which is still primarily “typical” prose, written in paragraph form (though the style of writing and the use of punctuation and fonts to give characters different voices still separates the writing from a normal novel).

OrbOrb 2






When another character, Cas, is reading off of a giant orb, Danielewski shows us what she’s reading by printing the text out as though it was actually on an orb, wrapping around in a spherical pattern, the words shrinking as they reach the edge. Cas’s prose sections also have circular indents in them as well, to show her connection to the orb. Again, these are sequential juxtaposed images that seem to fit McCloud’s definition of a comic. The images are comprised of words, as is the majority of the novel, but they are still sequential images that forward the story. The text alone could not convey the story – the shape of the words, the images, are essential to getting the feeling across. Even if you feel the story can be conveyed by words alone, McCloud’s definition does allow for aesthetic purposes, which these word-images certainly provide.


So the question I feel this raises is simple: is there a place in the graphic novel canon for a “novel heavy” graphic novel? I would argue that, at least under certain definitions, books like Danielewski’s could be defined as graphic novels, simply a type that relies more on the “novel” part of the term. It seems strange to classify them as such, but if it’s felt that they cannot be looked at as graphic, then it also lends credence to the idea that the way we define graphic novels needs to be more stringent in order to exclude books like The Familiar.