The Italian (and perhaps not only Italian) “struggle” for the term graphic novel

Posted by on August 28th, 2010 at 12:04 PM

Ciao a tutti,

(which means ‘Hello everybody,’ please don’t forget!)

in these years the expression “graphic novel” has entered the comicdoms of about all nations where comics are published.

As recently reminded (also) by David Hajdu in his beautiful book The Ten-Cent Plague (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2008), the first “graphic novel” published in the USA was probably It Rhymes with Lust, written by Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller, with art by Matt Baker, and published by Archer St. John in 1950. It was probably the first “graphic novel” not only for its actual outcome, but also because the authors and the publisher meant to accomplish such an editorial outcome. It Rhymes with Lust was ideated, created, and published as a novel, in a single volume, but of course its story was told using the language of comics. Many critics acknowledge, today, that it was a precursor too much in advance. It was defined a “picture novel,” as clearly claimed on the frontcover, above the title; but the readers of the historical period in which it appeared were not “ready,” so to speak. Neither was the market. Nor the culture, overall.

Frontcover of It “Rhymes with Lust,” published in 1950.

Anyway, it was intended as mere pulp fiction, nothing more than that. This is apparent not only from the very content of the book and its graphic presentation, but from the absence of the authors’ names on the frontcover as well. There was no meant literarity—not even a pretended one—also because the official role of the authors, intended as subjects who affirmed their authorship, totally lacked; this, at least, as I said, according to the visible strategy of presentation.

That It Rhymes with Lust had no success is not matter of discussion, here. What I have remarked above served to introduce anoher fact in the history of “graphic novels.” In 1969 Dino Buzzati, an Italian acclaimed writer, published his Poema a fumetti (a title which can be translated in English as ‘A Poem in Comics’): I believe that this was the first “graphic novel” (or one of the first) which gained in a Western market a substantial success. Poema a fumetti used the language of comics, but also used a personal form of alphabetical (i.e., verbal) poetry; a kind of illustrative style which in some points of the work, I believe, cannot be properly defined as “conventional” comics language; and above all, the title itself claimed that this work was not a novel. It was a poem. In comics.

Frontcover of the first Italian edition of Dino Buzzati’s “Poema a fumetti,” 1969.

(By the way, the book was recently translated into English with the title Poem Strip, trans. Marina Harss, New York Review Books 2009. To admire some of its pages, please go here).

The first proposition and definition of the term “graphic novel” (and of its related semantic aura) is today a very known story—1978, Will Eisner, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories…—and I won’t repeat it to an American/international audience. It would be much more interesting to read (or, re-read) Eddie Campbell’s “Graphic Novel Manifesto” (whose first version was written in 2005).

Mr. Eddie Campbell is offering me flowers because I have cited him here above.

But, if I can say so again, the why and how “graphic novelists” make their “graphic novels” does not interest me that much, today. Even leaving out the epic issue of what does “graphic novel” really mean in English (and that’s why I am insisting in putting the word inside inverted commas), which is a question to be discussed in another, prospective post, let’s just remark that many self-declared “graphic novels” have been and are being published which are not novels (but, for instance, non-fiction works, or collections of short stories), and that the adjective “graphic” does not designate precisely the language of comics, but a vaguer idea of a story expressed by graphic means. That’s why I like very much the term “comics novel” (which is not very widespread). It seems to me a more honest definition, though.

The “struggle” in Italy about the term “graphic novel” is multi-levelled. Many critics, scholars, authors, readers, journalists, use it, but often they mean different things. The worst case is that of journalists (first level). Once I have been asked by one of them whether I studied “comics” or “graphic novels”. When I counter-asked her “what do you mean by implying a difference between the two terms?” she answered that “comics” were “bad,” “conventional” comics and “graphic novels” were “good,” “new” comics. If this is, today, the common notion on the term “graphic novel”, well, chapeau to Will Eisner. The term sells very well. Not only are “comics” considered generally bad and conventional, but it also seems that at present for a comics work to be conventional means to be bad. But I hope that I just met a very bad (and conventional?) journalist.

Second level: the very use of the term in English. The Italian language is perhaps, among European idioms and cultures, the one which has absorbed in greatest measure English (meaning also the U.S. English) terms and idiomatic phrases. In the case of the expression “graphic novel,” some scholars observe that the English term is imprecise and that “romanzo a fumetti” (‘novel [told] through comics’) or a more general “libro a fumetti” (‘book [told] through comics’) would be not only very precise, but also expressed in the local idiom, which would be not that bad, after all. The discussion is very lively in other European countries, for example Spain (check out the book La novela gráfica by Santiago García and at least a clever commentary on it).

Frontcover of Santiago García’s “La novela gráfica,” 2010.

There also is a third level. The gender. Let us start from the fact that the word “fumetto [sing.] / fumetti [plur.]” is in Italian a masculine word. Perhaps very few people in the English-speaking world have wondered about the gender of the words “comics” and “graphic novel” because this kind of question must be for English-natives, actually, kind of a nonsense. Not in Italy (or in France, for instance, where the problem was promptly fixed at the root: “la ‘bande dessinée’” is feminine and “le ‘roman graphique’,” translated into French from “graphic novel,” is undoubtedly masculine). In Italy many say “la [feminine] ‘graphic novel’,” many others say “il [masculine] ‘graphic novel’.” Is this a silly matter, sillier than the previous ones? I don’t think so, obviously. Firstly, the world “novel,” in English, means ‘romanzo’ in Italian, and ‘romanzo’ is a masculine word (in Italian there is not “neutral” gender any longer, like the “it” in English or the “es” in German); but, secondly, “novel” comes from the ancient Italian word ‘novella’ (in Italian, a feminine word), which originally referred to a short story, not to a full-length novel; in fact the “novella” was in Italy a literary genre previous to the birth of the modern novel. That’s why the spontaneous linguistic mechanism among many Italians is that of referring to the “graphic novel” as a feminine term, automatically (but inexactly) referring to the gender of the world “novella” in Italian (a word which is still in use, sound and well) and not to the gender of the word “novel” translated into Italian (which is, precisely, ‘romanzo,’ masculine).

The English-philia in the social use of the language in Italy is a clear fact (and my position about this tendency is somewhat neutral). But the use of the word “graphic novel” has in Italy a negative effect in two senses: (1) it tends to erase from the mainstream public the notion that a “graphic novel” is actually a “comics” work; not a “comic book” in the Anglophone acceptation, but a book (as an object) expressed with the language of comics/fumetti. The journalist about whom I talked above is somehow a “fashion victim” of this appalling tendency. And (2) it becomes an easy and improper label which can be put on the covers of comics works which are not novels but for example, as I indicated above, non-fiction works.

This post, of course, has no conclusion (and neither the following ones will have one), because I have just proposed some points of conversation, because the discussions must be ongoing and because I am eager to read comments, opinions, criticisms by the good souls who will read these few lines of mine.

Arrivederci,

Marco Pellitteri

In the next post: some news and comments about Lucca Comics and Games 2010 (Oct. 29—Nov. 1).

The official teaser image for the 2010 edition of “Lucca Comics & Games,” one of the biggest European comics conventions

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2 Responses to “The Italian (and perhaps not only Italian) “struggle” for the term graphic novel”

  1. Luigi says:

    Hi Marco,
    yours truly Barry Allen here from komix.it, also from Italy!
    I was wondering if, in your opinion, Fantagraphics reprinted Milton Gross’ “He done her wrong” (1930), qualifies as first graphic novel ever; the same with “The four immigrants” manga from the year after.

    Cheers!
    Luigi

  2. Marco Pellitteri says:

    Hello Barry/Luigi,

    there are examples of comics novels (I don’t use the term “graphic novel” or anyway I do not like it at all, as you may have understood) which precede the most famous “pseudo-first” one (“A Contract with God and other Tenements Stories” by Will Eisner).

    If we want to link the birth of the “graphic novel” to the first introduction of the term itself, we have to remember that in the mid-1960s in the U.S. the expression was already used in reference to certain, sophisticated, European comics.

    As Andrea Plazzi points out in a very interesting article (http://andreaplazzi.wordpress.com/2009/04/20/il-fantasma-del-fumetto/), which for many of its features can be put together with my post, Will Eisner himself had been inspired by the works of Otto Nückel, Franz Masereel and Lynd Ward, who in the 1930s had published long stories, novel-like in length and intentions, expressed only through images, without any alphabetical text.
    Plazzi also cites Max Ernst, who in 1934 published “A Week of Kindness,” a book containing illustrations taken from feuilletons and put in strategic sequence so that they counted a story.

    These examples suggest (as Plazzi too seems to imply) that the very word “graphic novel” is nonsense when one claims it being a new way to define novels expressed in comics. A “graphic novel” is merely a novel which is expressed with “graphic” means, whatever this means, since something “graphic” can be photography, illustration, incision, and so forth.
    Hence the total vagueness of the adjective “graphic,” united to the pretemptiousness of the noun “novel,” form an expression which leads us far from the very substance of comics and tends to mistify this new editorial “creature.”

    Coming to your specific question about Milt Gross’ “He Done Her Wrong” (1930), Lynd Ward had apparently published in 1929 a similar work, “God’s Man,” followed by other similar works. To prove once more how the expression “graphic novel” cannot and should not be referred to comics, is the fact that “God’s Man” and other Ward’s works are stories told through wood engravings.

    “The Four Immigrants” manga is a book which I actually own in the edition curated by Frederik L. Schodt, but I have not here in Cologne (it is in my Palermo’s home library). I do not remember whether it was a collection of short comic stories, or even comic strips for some newspaper or magazine, or anyway a story in episodes; but I am not sure if it can be defined as a comics novel.

    Bye!
    Marco