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Review of Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics

By Sourav Chatterjee 

Williams, Paul. Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics. Rutgers University Press, 2020. 

Wait, what?! There were graphic novels in the 1960s and 1970s even before Maus and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns were published? Paul Williams convincingly argues that this was indeed the case in his boldly researched monograph, Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics. Williams writes that within a network of contradicting discourses, literary terms associated with the U.S. comic book industry were legitimized, (de)stabilized, and disseminated over three decades between the 1960s and 1980s. Signifiers like “comic novels,” “graphic novels,” “graphic narratives,” “comic art novels,” “graphic stories,” “graphic albums,” and “visual novels” were not employed interchangeably to refer to a standard printed object. Instead, they were products of a “shared project” in a constantly evolving set of negotiations and disagreements among publishers, editors, creators, artists, academic institutions, and fans (6). In his intervention into the history of novelized comics Williams draws from earlier theories on the “sociological turn in comics studies” that builds upon Bart Beaty’s idea of “comics world,” defined as an assemblage of individuals collectively responsible for producing works that are known as comics (12). The sociological turn enables Williams to study the economic imperatives and market forces that have restructured aesthetic decisions around diverse hermeneutic receptions of the terms—“graphic” and “novel”—between  1964 and 1980 (6).

Although scholarship on the history of the graphic novel has been substantial, Williams explicates that no study has yet explored the evolution in the terminology of the “graphic novel” used between 1960 and 1970 (12). At the kernel of this research rests a series of research questions: “How were comics conceived of as novels?” “How were length and format important to those conceptions?” “What kind of prose novels were invoked as models and why?” “How dominant was the term graphic novel?” And finally, “what was at stake in arguing that comics were literary texts?” (2). Williams addresses these question by deftly traversing the archives of “amateur press association mailings,” “sales catalogs,” “long runs of fanzines,” “advertisements, flyers, and prospectuses” (13) along with the long comics narratives belonging to genres of SF, horror, and fantasy. Dreaming the Graphic Novel is an audacious study of comics fandom, textual materialities, and the cultural semasiology of—novel, graphic, and graphic novel—in the U.S. comics industry.

The first chapter, “The Death of the Comic Book,” traces the changes in the distribution system of periodical comics sold in bulk and on a sale-or-return basis. During the mid-twentieth century, “The Big Two” (Marvel and DC) abandoned traditional retail outlets like newsstands, drugstores, bus and railway stations, convenience stores, and grocery stores and instead re-routed their periodical comics sales through the magazine distribution system (27). Through the magazine distribution system, mixed-bundled comics moved from publishers to distributors to independent regional distributors (wholesalers) to retailers, and finally, to end-users (27). However, this distribution method became increasingly “uneconomical” in the 1970s as comics sold only 30-40% of their print run (28). With the rising cost of paper, the “base price” of comics spiked between 1969 and 1980 (28) as supermarkets eliminated smaller retailers and additionally began refusing  to stock comics since they occupied more shelf space and had a negligible return on profits. Finally, due to widespread fraudulent practices—alleged Mafia infiltration in the business, unaffordable cost of transportation, and regional scarcity of an adequate number of copies—the sale-or-return policy of the magazine distribution system  was eventually replaced by the more lucrative “direct market” system in 1973 (28-29). Before the effects of this new “direct market” distribution were realized in the 1980s, short-lived innovations like the “Comicmobile” were launched in the 1970s to circumvent the magazine distribution system (29). However, when temporary solutions like the Comicmobile failed to revive sales, fan columnists proposed alternate models of production and a change to the standard comics’ format in order to prevent comic books from dying out forever. Williams writes that the shift in emphasis from the distribution of comics to their  materiality led The Comic Reader (TCR) and the “Centerfold Manifesto”  to jointly express the urgent need to diversify and attract adult readers, facilitate more experimental artistic freedom, and enlarge story materials from the standard 32-page to larger sized formats (32). Adopting larger-sized formats became plausible once DC’s sales began to plunge in the late 1970s. Amid the rising production costs and dipping sales, mainstream industries eventually adopted the format most commonly used in Franco-Belgian albums in order to rejuvenate the U.S. comics industry while simultaneously trying to initiate an international dialogue with the European comics scene (36).

Jean-Paul Gabilliet asserted that Franco-Belgian comics were mainly unknown in North America in the 1970s since their “Western European cultural backdrop” made them “unpalatable” to the “vast American public” (37). However, Williams revises Gabilliet’s assumptions in his  second chapter titled “Eastern Promise,”  claiming that the “foreignness” of Franco-Belgian comics (i.e., their “alternative configuration of production, distribution, and reception”) was the primary source of attraction for comics fans who were not as “vast” as Gabilliet estimated (37-38). This chapter records how North American members of CAPA-alpha—the first amateur press association founded in 1964—helped to circulate Franco-Belgian (F-B) comics like Tintin and Asterix in the 1960s and 1970s (38),  and it also serves to accomplish two additional things: it traces the circulation of Franco-Belgian comics through the networks of American fans (44); and, this chapter maps the conditions for the legitimization/novelization of U.S. comics under the artistic/cultural impetus of Franco-Belgian albums (56).

Throughout the history of U.S. comics, fandom has largely flourished in an exclusively male space where male fans have questioned and dismissed the opinions of female fan-critics. This sexist dimension of comics fandom was made most apparent during the Carroll-Decker debate on Asterix (1978) when fans viciously attacked Paulette Carroll for her audacity to correct Dwight Decker’s erroneous “local knowledge of Goscinny’s satire” (45). In this chapter, Williams charts the routes of knowledge within this narrow male-centric fandom that allowed CAPA-alphans and fanzines to promote Franco-Belgian albums for adults. Additionally, Williams takes the time to explore the extent to which the respectability and legitimacy of comics as an art form in Europe turned American fans into informal comics distributors. In John Fiske’s words, fan culture was transformed during this time into a “shadow cultural economy” that triggered increased competition among agents (43-44). Publishers began labeling U.S. comics as “novels” after Franco-Belgian albums to capitalize on the length of the works and, by extension, promote the non-puerile seriousness that elevated them as worthy collectibles. Thus it was unequivocally the materiality of the albums—the “hard covers, thick paper stock, and subtlety of color reproduction” (52)—that established them as a durable part of the fan’s library. 

This sudden surge in long comics narratives in 1978 caused by a confluence of various publishing patterns is the main focus of Williams’ third chapter, “Making Novels.” Here, he focuses on “separate-but-concurrent transformations” that manifested in four different publishing zones during the long narratives boom: direct market, conglomeration in the book trade, underground comix, and renewed translation of Franco-Belgian comics by Heavy Metal magazine (59). This chapter is divided into four sub-sections, each elaborating upon one of these four co-existing domains of publishing that intersected to expedite the novelization project. Direct Market, for example, paved the way for the rise of small independent companies (“independents”) so that such companies do not have to abide by the Comics Magazine Association of America’s Comics Code. Direct Market also promised more autonomy to creative workers by reducing editorial interference (63). In the 1970s, conglomeration in the book trade went through a “synergy” phase, where large corporations sought to buy publishing houses for education and entertainment purposes (71). In the following sub-section on Underground Comix, readers encounter sales catalogs and flyers for Jack Jackson’s Comanche Moon (1979), a work that attracted much praise for displaying the qualities of a “graphic novel” while providing readers with a “single flowing narrative” (77). The last sub-section focuses on the “third wave of translating Franco-Belgian comics,” as well as Heavy Metal’s serialization of long comics narratives followed by their reprint into albums (90, 93). Throughout these four sub-sections, readers are provided with a deeper understanding of the extent to which the rising cost of paper was a material crisis felt throughout the four publishing zones in the 1970s. The material impact of this crisis forced publishers to experiment with the publication of long comics narrative by rearranging alliances among production, distribution, and retail as a means for attracting new consumers through serialized narratives (book editions).

Williams’ fourth chapter, “The Graphic Novel Triumphant,” foregrounds the grand tussle in the comics community for the ultimate terminology. It mostly delineates the varied connotations associated with the terms graphic story and visual narratives in the 1970s, to which Williams provides of graphs and tables of word frequency distribution to explicate how the term “graphic novel” has been contested and stabilized as it grappled with its analogous alternatives  linked to the term novel (96). This chapter organizes factors that rendered graphic novel the most frequently used term, perpetually at loggerheads with its contenders: graphic story and visual novel (100-101). It analyzes fan-critic Richard Kyle’s use of the terms graphic novel and graphic story (in the CAPA-alpha newsletter “Wonderworld,” November 1964) and their reception among fans (102-103) before turning to study Will Eisner’s A Contract with God that was deprived of a special status in the 1970s (117). The most intriguing part of this chapter is Williams’ discussion of the highly incongruous registers of the compound “novel length”. He writes that although a “novel length” story occupied twenty-four to twenty-eight pages, it did not imply the ultimate standard of length for comics but instead pertained to “the sole narrative contained within a printed text.” Novel length, therefore, stood for book length; with both used interchangeably (106, 108). Williams further proposes that comics were accepted as novels only when they were minimum 48 pages long; a page count considered the prevalent “tipping point” (108). Moreover, BPVP’s books gained popularity in the 1970s as visual novels (109). BPVP’s reception among fans and fan-journalists was quite controversial in thwarting the currency of the visual novel as it came to be associated with “book-format comic overburdened by large chunks of prose” (111). With the fall of popular terms like visual novel and graphic album, graphic novel became the dominant term by 1980. Williams writes, “If novel was hot, graphic was hotter” (118). The coalition of graphic and novel was lucrative since together the phrase evoked the symbolic capital of novel along with various adjectival compounds of graphic like—graphic history, graphic story, and graphic narrative. Another reason for the popularization of graphic novel was Bud Plant’s advertisements in TCJ, TBJ, and numerous fanzines that referred to book-format comics (long narratives) as graphic novels (119). Throughout chapter five, Williams elaborates in detail on the polysemy of the term novel in the graphic novel, its symbolic capital, and extensive references to comics as novels in the second half of the 1980s. 

In “Putting the Novel into Graphic Novel,” Williams discusses: how readers redefined comics using canonical definitions of the novel during the 1970s; the direct influence of modernism on auteurship (153). Following Jeffrey A. Brown’s re-application of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theories, Williams questions what it means to assess comics through long-established concepts borrowed from other literary genre. For Williams, the “purest form of novelization” (crystallizing in Spiegelman’s Breakdowns) was achieved when comics shifted from periodic to book-format materiality, thereby conferring upon them a “fantasy of completeness” (129, 156).

The final chapter, “Comics as Literature?” aims to interrogate whether comics could ever achieve the status of canonical literature. Throughout this chapter, Williams addresses the commercialization of comic fandom in the 1970s and the authenticity of fans based on their reading practices (160). In the aftermath of the commercialization of fandom, fans adopted a comparative framework between comics and “legitimate culture” (novels, plays, art films) to argue that their preferred comics were as profound, complex, yet subtle as canonized literary texts (164). The entire community believed strongly that only through the commercialization of the medium could the study of comics prosper (165). Although the genre was granted more serious attention throughout the 1970s, comics had still yet to be granted the status of Literature with a capital L. Throughout this time, comics fans were distinguished based on their preference for either medium-specific (pop-cultural) or psychoanalytical and formalistic (academic literary) elements of the genre (168-169).  As a result, the community thoroughly rejected The Comics Journal’s academic approach to comics in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (180). Williams observes that fans equally accused collectors and critics of inauthenticity and egotism, thereby jeopardizing fandom’s collective good. Fandom existed because comics were not “juvenile escapist ephemera” (180). The predominately male dimension of the fandom dictated that true fans should vehemently resist the hegemonic literary culture through their manly, antielitist, and antinarcissistic values derived  through “knockabout popular culture” (178). The fight to establish comics as “mainstream literature” waged on into the 1980s. 

Williams concludes that the 1980s was the decade of graphic novel experimentation and growth. Partnership with Hollywood continued to foster novelization in the 1980s. At the same time, this also resulted in the phenomenon of the miniseries (DC’s three-issue World of Krypton [1979] created by Paul Kupperberg, Howard Chaykin, and Murphy Anderson). As the decade continued, the term visual novel eventually disappeared just as the move from underground to “alternative” (underground and ground-level) comics ushered even greater artistic freedom and experimentation with genres (185).  However it is only during the second half of the 1980s, with the publication of groundbreaking titles like Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, American Splendor, and Watchmen that readers are able to fully immerse themselves in “the empire of graphic novels” (190).

One should be warned that Williams’ Dreaming the Graphic Novel is not a work about literary/comics criticism but it is a work about literary history more broadly, providing an intricate history of the concept of the “graphic novel” from the 1960s to 1980s through the method of text data mining and distribution networks. As a result, the lack of textual close-reading and critical commentary in each chapter should not come across as a shortcoming of Williams’ argument, since his work is structured by a very different methodological approach. Lastly, Williams’ reference to the comics world as a “subaltern zone of social ostracism” (3) seems dubious because of the casual treatment of the conceptually charged adjectival “subaltern,” which finds no further elaboration of its usage in the book. Williams uses “subaltern” to signify institutional marginality, but it is more than just occupying the margins. Subalternity is a position without identity; it subsumes oppression and marginality, resists historicization, and is devoid of class consciousness. If the comics world occupies a “subaltern zone,” it will be complicated to write a history of its social ostracism. 

Nevertheless, Paul Williams’ Dreaming the Graphic Novel is a methodological wonder for scholars interested in American popular culture, digital humanities, text mining, and the history of comics and graphic novels. His mixed methodological approach allows him to successfully participate in “the ongoing recovery of comics studies’ prehistory” as well as establish “a new way of doing graphic novel history” (4, 12). Williams’ book should be a required reading alongside Baetens and Frey’s The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (2014) for courses offering an introduction to graphic novels in the U.S. Comics fans, comics scholars, and those interested in the history of graphic novel might also find this a stimulating read. 

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