Fables on the BBC

Via Rich Johnston comes this cool Fables ad, which I guess ran in the UK over the weekend during a Doctor Who marathon:

This is neat, because it is basically the kind of thing Jon was begging to see more of last week; people can put comics adverts on television and Vertigo is putting comics adverts on the telly (well, at least in Britain, anyway), which is a huge step in the right direction.

Now, before we get too excited, Rich suggests that Vertigo may have not bought the space so much as traded some with the BBC, so they may not have actually sought out the time for the 30 second spot so much as taken the BBC up on an offer of barter. With that said though, DC/Vertigo/Warner/Whoever did decide to give up a chunk of (very valuable) advertising revenue to run the ad and this is extremely important because it means that DC/Vertigo/Warner/Whoever thinks they can sell comics by advertising them on television. Cool, right?

Well, mostly. Rich has some complaints about the ad copy (which is fair enough- the man does do advertising for a living), but the major problem I have with the ad is that it sells Fables as a series of graphic novels, which it is not. It is a series of comic books. The distinction may seem fine and, to be honest, it is, but it is also extremely important. COMICS is a medium, much like literature or film. A "graphic novel" is (to borrow a term from improv) a long-form kind of comic, while a comic book is a short-form (again, an improv term) example of the medium. Therefore, Fables is a long running comic book which, as a general rule, runs 32 pages per issue while 1001 Nights of Snowfall is a graphic novel set in the Fables universe.* There are other things that separate comic books from graphic novels (for instance, comics are generally part of a series while graphic novels are generally stand-alone) but these are mostly generalizations (this week's Serenity: Float Out is a one-shot while Maus has two volumes, for example) and, therefore, to distill the differences to their essence is to discuss length.

Hence, the problem with the advert calling Fables a series of graphic novels; Fables is a series of comic books, which is occasionally collected into something resembling a graphic novel. This is the heart of something I call The Comics Consumption Problem: because collections resemble graphic novels we treat them as such and, therefore, we consume them as such. The problem is, collections of comic books are just that- collections of comic books! To treat them as graphic novels is to consume them differently than they were intended; it is to consume them as one story rather than as serial chapters of one story. This may not seem like an important distinction, but it is a very important distinction- telling a story serially over a period of months is different than telling a story in one big chunk (this is part of the reason that television differs from film, for example); it forces a creator to put the same sort of overall structure in an individual issue that he or she would put in the series as a whole, when taken together and it forces us, the reader, to read in a very different and specialized kind of way.

I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't buy collections- they do a lot of good, and there is a reason they exist. I am suggesting, however, that there needs to be a new standard, a new way of understanding them that differs from both comic books and graphic novels. We need to understand them in their own terms.

The Fables advert on the BBC is really cool and, like I said, I think it is a step in the right direction. I do, however, think that it represents a kind of thinking about comics that moves us backwards in other ways, ways we need to be very careful of.

*Whether or not 1001 Nights of Snowfall actually counts as a "graphic novel" is an interesting question- most of it is comics, but some of it is actually illustrated prose. A discussion on how to treat something like this will have to wait for another time.


  1. Wow. Comics ads on television. That is something I'd wanted (no, dreamed of) for a damn long time.

    Although, according to Rich Johnston's site this is the second time they've done it. The first ad aired almost a year ago and was for the Vertigo Crime line: http://vertigo.blog.dccomics.com/2009/10/21/vertigo-crime-makes-its-television-debut

    I agree with so much of what you've written above, Josh, that some people will probably think I posted that article and claimed I was you.

    Comics advertising on TV is a step in the right direction and comic-book collection paperbacks do need to be considered on their own separate terms. Like a DVD TV season set: not the same as watching a film and not the same as actually watching TV, nor even quite the same as watching a single recorded episode.

    I've begun to think about the word that is the comics collections' closest approximation in the music industry: the 'album'. The Europeans have the right idea: Graphic album.

    That's my thoughts.