Graphic Narratives for Adults

From Judith Thurman's really excellent profile of Alison Bechdel, in the New Yorker:
Graphic narratives for adults, by a single author, unlike comic books, which are often produced by a collective, began to appear [Hillary] Chute [author of the academic study Graphic Women, which puts Bechdel's work alongside that of Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Marjane Satrapi, Phoebe Gloeckner and Lynda Barry] writes, only in the early nineteen-seventies, when a Catholic outsider artist named Justin Green, who was obsessed with evil "penis rays" emanating from his sex organ, published Binky Brown Meets the Virgin Mary. The genre, from its inception, has been raunchy and anarchic. Bechdel, with many of her peers, shares Green's impulse to commit sacrilege. They treat a serious subject-- abuse, persecution, pathology, with crude humor and raw imagery, and subvert a form of entertainment associated with the childhood thrill of defying parental strictures about "good" and "bad" books. "Sometimes I think I became a cartoonist because my mother simply doesn't get comics," Bechdel said. "They're like the ultrasonic ringtone on a teenagers phone."
There's a lot of really complicated, really interesting stuff going on here, but what strikes me more than anything else is how far out of her way Thurman has to go to avoid the term "graphic novel" in the first sentence. Bechdel, in Thurman's view, is following a tradition of long form graphic narrative and thus makes "graphic narratives for adults" rather than graphic novels. I don't like that latter term, so I sort of appreciate that Thurman is trying to use something different, but I think that she has to bend so far backwards to make the paragraph work in part because she (or, rather, Hilary Chute) isn't really talking about a matter of length, which is what separates, to my mind, "comic book" and "graphic novel" but is instead speaking about the alternative comics tradition, which includes Kominsky-Crumb and Art Spigelman but probably not Marjane Satrapi. Not only can I not really get behind using this terminology for this distinction, but, for what its worth, I like the phrase "graphic narratives for adults," even less than I like the phrase "graphic novels," which already reeks of a wildly ill-advised to legitimize a medium that, probably since Maus, no longer really needs legitimating for those with open minds.* Obviously, the "for adults" part is problematic in part because it presumes that comic books are for children (and, to beat a dead horse, because what Will Eisner did, for example, was intelligible by children but really for adults), but, again, why are we resistant to calling things what they are? Bechdel is a cartoonist, and she draws comics. It doesn't make what she does, and what Bechdel does is draw some of the highest quality comics that there are, any less legitimate to call the medium that she works in by its real name.

*There's a post coming about Maus and the prejudice against comics, but its a few days away.

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