Can a graphic novel ever achieve the status of a work of art?

The following essay was written in 2011 during the first year of my degree course. At this time I was aspiring to be an illustrator, therefore, of all the discourse lectures, the topic of graphic novels interested me the most. It was, perhaps, the most difficult question to choose, but I gave it my best shot. Although it was a challenge to find relevant theory to write about, I decided I would rather focus on something I was interested in, than pick an easier theme that bored me.

This essay will look at what a work of art is and whether or not a comic book or graphic novel could ever achieve this status. The word art can be broken down into different categories such as fine art and applied art. This essay will consider what art category graphic novels could come under or whether they are something else, for example literature or purely entertainment.

Art is a very difficult word to define, as there are so many different ideas about what it means. Even the definitions of the word can raise more questions. One perspective is that art is “commonly used to describe something of beauty, or a skill which produces an aesthetic result” Visual Art Cork (2011) [online]. However this in turn raises the question what is beauty and what counts as aesthetic? Another view is that art is produced because of thought and a creative impulse; yet again this definition can be questioned. Art, however, can be broken down into different categories such as: fine art, applied art, decorative art, design, and so forth.

Fine art is just as broad a topic as art in general. Usually people associate fine art with activities such as drawing and painting but over time other things have been included in this category for example sculpture, printmaking and illustration. “Art produced or intended primarily for beauty rather than utility.” Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia, (2011) [online]. Therefore it could be suggested that fine art is produced to look good, create a mood or evoke a feeling rather than for having a particular function. Nevertheless, as when defining art it is just as difficult to establish a clear definition for fine art as the media and strategies employed by Fine artists are constantly evolving and changing.

There is, on the other hand, a difference between fine art and applied art. Whereas fine art is principally aesthetically driven, applied art is focused on applying this beauty to functional objects. Chilvers (2004, page 29) refers to applied art as a “Term describing the design or decoration of functional objects so as to make them aesthetically pleasing.”

Therefore although there are similarities with fine art, the art is then being applied to everyday objects such as cups, magazines and other items that could have a greater impact on the everyday lives of people. There are also sub-categories for applied art such as interior design, graphic design and fashion design. The Bauhaus is an example of a school associated with greater cultural status being attributed to applied art.

Another type of art is sequential narrative art. “Art that contains a narrative communicated to the audience by a sequence of images (2 or more)…” Spiltink, (2011) [online]. So if there are two or more images that when put together tell a story this is sequential art. In a museum curators may hang paintings next to each other to create a connection or narrative however sometimes this relies on the audience to make the connection. William Hogarth (1697-1764) is a fine artist famous for his sequential art The Rake’s Progress 1734, Tate Britain (2011) [online]. These are eight oil paintings which gradually tell a story of the rise and fall of the character who inherits a fortune in his teens and dies penniless in Bedlam.

It is thought that sequential art dates as far back as the cave men and early cave paintings. Egyptian hieroglyphs are also a form of sequential narrative art. Comic strips and comic books use this idea of sequential art. One of the earliest forms of comic books was produced by Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) during the 1800s through his histories en images or picture stories. Lambiek, (2011) [online]. He created a total of six titles including Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois (1839) which has been translated as Obadiah Oldbuck and was the first ever comic book to be published.

Comic books usually tell a story in a cartoon style drawn format. Despite being called comics they are not all funny. There are many different genres of the comic book form such as drama, adventure, politics or romance. Some of the most well known comics contain superheroes. Marvel is very well known for their comics relating to various superheroes including Iron Man, Spider-man, the Hulk and Wolverine. Marvel, (2011) [online]. A graphic novel on the other hand uses the same storytelling format as comic books but often deals with more mature themes and extensive storylines. Sometimes graphic novels are referred to as long comic books because they usually cover a story from start to finish.

A very famous graphic novel is Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986). In this book Spiegelman recounts his father’s experience during the Second World War in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. Spiegelman originally created a comic strip based on events that his father and mother had told him about when he was a child. This in turn led him to interview his father several times to find out the rest of the story. In order for people to understand this historical story Spiegelman has filled it with metaphors.

“The central device of Maus, which gives it a lot of its riveting force, is Spiegelman’s trick of drawing Jews with mouse heads and tails and Nazis with cat heads. (Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, and anyone trying to be anything else wears the appropriate mask.)”          (Wolk, 2007, Page 343)

When Spiegelman depicts his father trying to get home he draws him as a mouse with a pig mask so that he is not recognised as a Jew by anybody. It is possible to see how considered Spiegelman’s work is through the way he uses animal faces to represent the different people instead of simply drawing people. (See figure 1)

“The book’s characters aren’t drawn as “realistic” animals, though; they’re cartoon animals, the mice’s faces stripped down to a simple outline, a pair of dots for eyes, and maybe if they are lucky some eyebrows.”   (Wolk, 2007, Page 343)

Spiegelman mixes the factual subject matter of the holocaust with cartoon characters. Even the cat and mouse idea is a traditional format of children’s cartoons. Despite the cartoon feel to the novel the story is about a horrible past reality. As Wolk (2007, page 343) says animal cartoons are usually smoothly drawn however Maus was mostly drawn with a felt tip pen in an untidy way therefore using the least resources as possible. This connects with the fact that the drawings portray characters that had to make do with what they could find. This style of drawing helps to recount the horrors of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis and the pain the survivors experienced.

In 1992 Maus won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

“The Pulitzer is considered to be one of the highest honours in writing, and for a comic book to be recognised alongside the year’s best work in literature and journalism was previously unthinkable.”            (Duncan & Smith, 2009, Page 1)

The result of a graphic novel achieving this prize can immediately make people presume that graphic novels and comic books are a form of literature rather than a form of art. Will Eisner, who Wolk (2007, Page 14) called “the late grandmaster of American comics” liked to describe comics as a “literary form”. They strongly resemble works of literature as they use words and have a narrative content as well as being printed in books. The word ‘novel’ in the term graphic novel is very misleading because to most people it means a work of fiction in a written form. This then could also make people believe that graphic novels are actually a work of literature.

On the other hand, comic books and graphic novels can fit in with some of the definitions of a work of art. Some of the activities included under then term “art”, Visual Art Cork, (2011) [online], are illustration, drawing and cartoons. The visual aspect of graphic novels are usually drawn rather than any other kind of imagery and also of a cartoon format therefore this description of art is also a description of comics and graphic novels.

Graphic novels do have a narrative content but this does not necessarily mean that they are literature. Duncan and Smith (2009, page 14) quote Steranko in relation to narratives: “The art of the pictorial narrative is, in fact, the original art form. Painting, sculpture and their analogous crafts are all offspring of the narrative work. Today narratives are called comics”. Here Steranko is saying that comics, and therefore graphic novels, are a form of art.

In contrast, Duncan and Smith (2009, page 48) claim that “As with other forms of expression, such as music, film or literature, the more commercial a medium becomes, the less artistic merit it seems to hold for its critics.” Graphic novels are produced to be sold and are therefore a very commercial medium. However as well as the commercial mainstream comics, there were underground versions, which contained subjects that had been banned from other comics. “Underground comics were more like art and less like comics” Ezinearticles, (2011) [online]

Roger Sabin (1996, page 8) claims that comics have been relegated to the status of “trash icons” and the creators of comics have supposedly never been respected as “artists”. “…not uncommonly, they remain anonymous while the characters they have created go on to become household names (everybody knows who Superman is, but how many people can name his creators?).” This is not always the case. Art Spiegelman has reached a degree of fame on a wider cultural level.

Before Maus was published in book form, Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly launched the magazine RAW in 1980. Within this magazine they published many avant-garde cartoons and most importantly the serialised version on Maus.

            “RAW didn’t try to demonstrate that comics could be art; it just assumed that was a given. Effectively, it was an art magazine whose contributors were all mighty interested in comics.” (Wolk, 2007, page 341)

Based on RAW’s opinion, comics are a form of art, and Spiegelman’s Maus appeared in the magazine, therefore could be perceived as art.

As a work of art is difficult to define it must be just as hard to work out what can or cannot be classed as art. As Sabin (1996, page 8). rightly asks, “exactly who decides which mediums qualify and which do not?” Sabin (1996, page 8) also suggests “The essential idea implicit in the history told in these pages is that comics may or may not be ‘art’, but they are indisputably an artform.”

As art is a difficult term to define it is not easy to answer the question: Can a graphic novel ever achieve that status of a work of art? After looking at different definitions of art it appears that graphic novels are not necessarily fine art because they are not created just for beauty however they are produced using some of the same methods that a fine artist may use. Art Spiegelman drew out his entire graphic novel by hand and drawing is one of the methods used by artists. Graphic novels are closer to applied art in definition rather than fine art because the imagery has been created with a purpose in mind. There are arguments that graphic novels are a form of literature especially as Maus won the Pulitzer Prize and they have a narrative content. Another reason that they might not be considered a work of art is because they are a commercial medium, which causes many people to not even think to regard them as artwork.

Being a commercial medium, graphic novels are so much cheaper than a work of art such as a painting by Monet. A painting is more expensive because there is only one original copy of it. Somberville and Hanna state that “This is why, when an artist dies, their work is suddenly worth so much more: because they can’t make anymore originals.” Ezinearticles, (2010) [online]. So a graphic novel would not become expensive like these kinds of works of art because they can easily be reproduced meaning that many people can own a copy.

Despite being regarded as literature, the narrative content of a graphic novel is visual and is told through a sequence of drawings. This can be considered as a type of art form: sequential art.

Overall certain aspects of a graphic novel can be considered art but because of its similarity to literature and its commerciality it might not receive as much artistic merit as an example piece of fine art.

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Figure 1 (Random House, 2011 [Online])

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Somberville, D./ Hanna, M (2010) Why are Paitinings so Expensive? [Online] Available from: http://ezinearticles.com/?Why-Are-Paintings-So-Expensive?&id=4366454 [Accessed 7th April 11].

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Tate Britain (2011) Tate Britain| Past Exhibitions | Hogarth – Hogarth’s Modern Moral Series: The Rake’s Progress. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/hogarth/modernmorals/rakesprogress.shtm. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

The Free Dictionary (2011) Applied art – encyclopedia article about Applied art. [ONLINE] Available from: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Applied+art. [Accessed 19 March 2011].

Visual Art Cork (2011) Art Definition, Meaning: How to Define “Fine Arts”, “Visual Arts”, Aesthetics, Crafts: Classification Questions, History of Definitions. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/art-definition.htm. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

Visual Art Cork (2011) Fine Art, Definition, Meaning, History: Academies of Fine Arts, Periods/Movements: Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/definitions/fine-art.htm. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

Wolk, D. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge Mass, Da Capo Press.

Other images of artwork relevant to or mentioned in the essay:

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