Editor: Vittorio Frigerio (Dalhousie University)
A similar, apparently irreducible dichotomy has appeared concerning the origin of the “graphic novel.” American critics consider Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978) as the first graphic novel ever produced, while European historians point to Hugo Pratt’s La Ballata del mare salato (1967 – although its influence is said to be felt primarily after its translation into French in 1975). And it is not unusual to see credit for the origin of the graphic novel given to the Argentinian El Eternauta, by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López (1957).
Apart from matters of national pride and predominance, these divergent views are also due to unresolved questions regarding the meaning of the terms involved. Töppfer’s books would not qualify as a comic if one were to consider the genre as primarily defined by the use of the speech balloon. But then neither would such seminal works as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon or Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. In the Franco-Belgian domain, debates have also excluded such historically significant works as Joseph Pinchon’s Bécassine or Louis Forton’s Les Pieds nickelés. In the Italian tradition, practically all pre-Second World War productions, such as Sergio Tofano’s Signor Bonaventura or Antonio Rubino’s Quadratino would automatically be excluded.
The final definition of “graphic novel” remains open to debate, as any customer of a major North American booksellers’ chain knows full well. Major commercial publishers recycle “classic” comic book fare under the new label and present it beside recent, more “literary” productions issued by niche or alternative publishers. Indeed, we can easily go from all-encompassing definitions such as offered by Stephen Weiner…
“Graphic novels, as we shall define them for this project, are book-length comic books that are meant to be read as one story. This broad term includes collections of stories in genres such as mystery, superhero, or supernatural, that are meant to be apart from their corresponding ongoing comic book storyline; heart-rending works such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus; and non-fiction pieces such as Joe Sacco’s journalistic work, Palestine.” (Stephen Weiner, Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel. Introduction by Will Eisner. NBM Publishing, 2012.)
… to much more restrictive and specific ones, like that proposed by Thierry Groensteen…
“[T]he comics medium has matured, […]. Its standing has greatly improved, to the extent that it is now regarded as a form of literature in its own right. It has diversified by moving into new areas (history, personal life, science, philosophy, sometimes poetry) and by taking on new forms (diary, reportage, essay).” (Thierry Groensteen. The Expanding Art of Comics. Ten Modern Masterpieces. Translated by Ann Miller. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2017, p. 3.)
Such appraisals also seem to vary according to the national origin of the critic, with North American criticism generally more willing to include mass cultural products within the field of the graphic novel, while European critics highlight notions of “maturity” and generic evolution that reserve the label for productions outside of, or in the margins of the commercial mainstream. Comics, bandes dessinées, fumetti, tebeos, manga—as they are known with important variations in different cultural contexts—and their critical reception, thus appear to differ significantly depending on their national histories and cultural preferences, and are only superficially identical.
On the other hand, comic book characters, their authors, and their publications have crossed national and linguistic boundaries to an extent rarely seen in the world of literary fiction. Any account of the Franco-Belgian “bande dessinée” would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact of Golden Age American comics, either as aesthetic models (George McManus’s influence on Hergé, Caniff’s influence on Jijé and other artists of the realistic school of drawing), or as competitors whose symbolic dominance led to the development of an autochthonous industry. American underground comics and authors of Mad magazine inspired the creators of the French Pilote and encouraged the transformation of the medium so that it appealed to the tastes of an older audience. In return, Franco-Belgian “ligne claire” informed some notable contemporary North American creators (Jeff Smith, Chris Ware…) and even influenced the international art world (Dutch illustrator Joost Swarte).
A constant whirlwind of reciprocal influences has marked the evolution of the comic genre across North America and the major European markets, as well as important markets in Latin America, most notably Argentina. Hugo Pratt, Alberto Ongaro, and Mauro Faustinelli contributed importantly to the development of the genre in that country, while European translations of Argentinian authors such as Alberto Breccia, have helped generate cultural recognition for the new genre of the graphic novel. Not all experiments were equally successful. Moebius (pseudonym of French author Jean Giraud), invited by Stan Lee to draw the famous Silver Surfer, did not meet with unconditional approval in the U.S. Periodic attempts at translating celebrated series such as Tintin and Astérix for an English-speaking public have not been able to duplicate the success of the characters in their respective native countries. The iconic Italian western Tex Willer is a major hit in Brazil, but only one story has appeared in North America, and then only because it was drawn by well-known American artist Joe Kubert.
In recent decades, the increasing critical recognition of comics as a legitimate artistic and literary genre has spawned the creation of several significant international events, such as the Angoulême International Comics Festival (France) and the Lucca Comics and Games convention (Italy), helping to further break down barriers and to bring national traditions into ever closer contact, while at the same time favoring the representation of comics as specific national products deserving of state sponsorship and protection granted through agencies such as the “Centre belge de la bande dessinée” in Belgium or the “Cité international de la bande dessinée et de l’image” in France.
What can a transnational analysis of the development of comics and graphic novels teach us about the nature of the genre? Do the exchanges and circulations (of authors, characters, styles, subjects, publishing formats…) between national traditions allow for a rewriting of the evolution of graphic narratives, outside of nation-based or linguistic models? What do these migrations tell us about any immutable or invariable properties potentially common to graphic narratives, independently of their chronological and geographical positioning, their intended audiences or their degree of cultural recognition? How and to what extent can the historiography of comics and graphic novels benefit from adopting a global approach to the subject?
This issue of Paradoxa will explore comics and/or graphic novels. Among the possible approaches are:
- comics in their relation to their national identity whether in specific works or in series, as related to the publishing industry and its functioning, or to the career of individual authors, from the beginning of the genre to the present time;
- the importance of foreign influences on the evolution of national comics traditions; the success, or lack thereof, of comics characters in different countries;
- differences and similarities between national markets and readerships;
- governmental support and promotion of comic art;
- the transnational evolution of comics magazines;
- comics in a globalized world;
- the graphic novel as a global phenomenon; comics and graphic novels–natural evolution from one into the other, or competing genres?
We are interested in proposals from all disciplines and theoretical perspectives. Comparative studies which take into consideration more than one national tradition are preferred.
500-word abstracts of article proposals or questions regarding this project should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by September 1, 2019.