As an artist and writer of graphic novels (or comics), I was delighted to see Nick Drnaso's Sabrina has been nominated for the Man Booker Award, the most prestigious of prestigious literary awards. But wait… it's not a book, it's a graphic novel! I mean, it's a novel, sure, but it doesn't have lots of fancy words. Should it even be nominated?
It's a rare treat to see graphic novels get this kind of coverage. More often, we see headlines along the lines of "Biff! Pow! Comics aren't for kids anymore". To have a cartoonist receive an honour such as the Booker flies in the face of the more established juvenile perception of our craft. To read graphic novels is often reduced to being 'childish' or 'immature' but to do so reveals an ignorance of what the medium provides. To have a narrative that contains pictures is generally considered to be a crutch for the Luddite, but that is to miss the point. It's not to look at pictures that support the words, it's to experience the images and words together that create the narrative and provide a unique experience for the reader.
For those unaware, 'graphic novel' is a term invented by industry legend Will Eisner. After years working as a cartoonist, Eisner coined the phrase in an attempt to have a tool in which the medium of comics could better be received in literary fields. A graphic novel is, in layman's terms, a long-form comic - sequential images that tell a story much longer in scope, much like a novel. If Eisner's aim was to have the medium recognised in more erudite circles, it certainly seems to have worked.
So much so that today, many comic creators shudder at the term, believing it suggests 'comics' are a lower form of material when they are in fact the very same thing. As defined by cartoonist Scott McCloud, "Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer". Be it in 20 page monthly magazines, online web comics or collected volumes, the medium is the same - all that changes is the delivery system of that story.
The comic book industry is massive, ever evolving to keep up with the trends of its readers in ways other media have failed. Graphic novels themselves are a growing industry, traditionally shared and discussed in online forums and specialty stores, but now finding themselves more in the public eye, particularly in bookstores. The comics market has changed, the graphic novel market has exploded in recent years, with kids and young adults in particular being the fastest growing segment. More young women have gravitated towards the medium by ways of chain bookstores and online retail outlets. The audience has become more diversified, supportive of different types of stories for different types of readers and the market is adjusting to accommodate them.
It's obvious that comics are now a huge part of mainstream culture, with cult comics such as Preacher and Deadpool now massive television series and films respectively. However, therein also lies a problem for graphic novels - with only the big superhero franchises permeating through the bubble of comics into popular household entertainment, the idea that comics equals superheroes has been further projected. And this is both dangerous to the medium, and incorrect. All music isn't classical. All films aren't Casablanca. All comics aren't Batman.
The truth is the comic is a medium, and within that medium are a plethora of different genres of stories. Historical, biographical, crime, romance, action/adventure, sci-fi, etc. In my own career alone, I have worked on Marvel and DC superheroes, drawn an Icelandic Viking crime epic with Northlanders, a genre-bending series that mixes sci-fi with crime and mythology with Injection, and even written a Limerick-set crime story with Savage Town. In fact, many popular television series and films are based on comic series and graphic novels that have nothing to do with classic superheroes.
You may be surprised to hear Sam Mendes' wonderful Road to Perdition was based on a graphic novel, or Cronenberg's A History Of Violence, or even the Channel 4/Netflix series The End Of The F***ing World. Graphic novels can be as wide and diverse as any book or piece of film-making.
Drnaso's Sabrina being nominated for a Booker is a significant achievement, but it is not the first graphic novel to break through and receive literary acknowledgement and praise. In 1992, Art Spiegelman's Maus won the Pulitzer Prize. In 2004, cartoonist Alison Bechdel received a MacArthur Genius Grant, while Alan Moore and Gave Gibbons' Watchmen was named one of TIME's 100 best novels in the following year. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki won a Caldecott in 2015 for This One Summer and in 2016, the National Book Award was awarded to March: Book 3, the final part of the graphic novel trilogy telling the events surrounding Congressman John Lewis's activism during the Civil Rights Movement.
While not yet regular occurrences, graphic novels have slowly been drilling deeper into literary consciousness. Seeing works like Sabrina make headway with such prestigious appreciation can only be a good thing. In Ireland alone, there has been a massive leap in the amount of professional creators in recent years. Witnessing compelling work breaking new ground is exciting, and it encourages creators to push their boundaries.
Drnaso's achievement is the next (and significant) step in the right direction for the medium. I hope this is a trend that continues and aggregates, as there is a magic to reading a graphic novel that is difficult to translate. To describe graphic novels is to diminish them. They are things to be experienced, not merely read.
The question is often asked, "Have graphic novels come of age?". I'd argue they grew up a long time ago, but you're only starting to notice.
Declan Shalvey is an award winning artist/writer from Ennis, Co Clare. He has worked for Marvel Comics since 2010, illustrating/writing characters such as Deadpool, Moon Knight, and Venom. He is the writer of the Irish crime graphic novel Savage Town and is the illustrator of the graphic novel series Injection, published by Image Comics, currently being developed for TV by Universal Cable Productions.