Ahead of European Literature Night, and the British Library exhibition on comics, Paul Gravett writes about the history of the term ‘graphic novel’, the ways it is used in different European countries, and how it has tracked the ongoing rise of comics in translation
This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
The concept of the graphic novel – comics printed in permanent book form – has a long history in Europe, but the term itself was originally coined in America in 1964 by the critic and dealer Richard Kyle. It was his attempt to cast off the tropes and trappings of lightweight comedy and juvenile subject matter, which have been so long associated with the word ‘comics’. Among Kyle’s inspirations, assuring him that the medium could flourish in more than ephemeral periodicals like daily newspapers or monthly comic books, were the handsome bande dessinée albums he was importing from France and Belgium at the time. He knew that the buoyant French-language market for comics in book form, often hardcover and kept in print for decades, dated back to the best-selling phenomena of Asterix in the 60s and Tintin in the 30s. Kyle published a call to arms for American creators to aspire to the same sort of lengthy, ambitious and more adult projects, inventing the phrase ‘graphic story’, and out of this, developing the notion of the graphic novel.
Fifty years later, it’s remarkable how much has changed. In Britain, the arbiters of taste have been slow to accept modern comics as anything other than kids’ stuff. But a series of tipping points have included Posy Simmonds and Raymond Briggs being inducted into The Royal Society of Literature in 2005, Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes winning the 2012 Costa Book Award for Biography, and this summer The British Library in London hosting Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, the largest exhibition of British comics ever seen in Britain.
Elsewhere across Europe, the graphic novel has become an increasingly popular sector of publishing and, along with children’s books, one of the few to defy the current trend for declining print sales. By far the largest producer is France, where the output of bandes dessinées has increased astonishingly over the past dozen years, topping 5,000 new titles per year and tapering off only slightly in 2013. Despite the fact that, in the term ‘bande dessinée’, literally ‘drawn strip’, the French have found a neutral, non-judgmental way to describe comics, they too have adopted the term graphic novel or ‘roman graphique’ to promote longer, more literary, serious and experimental work, and distinguish this from the more standardised genre fare in regular, often serialised 48-page albums.
Equally rich and burgeoning are the comics scenes in other countries, spurred on by national funding, and grants for translation and printing, for example from the Flemish Literature Fund, FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Only ten years ago, German publishers had not decided what to call these unidentified printed objects, resolving in the end to adopt the English phrase and nurturing their own vibrant variety of authors. Now major festivals, exhibitions, dedicated centres and a network of activists support and expand local growth and international exchange as never before.
Translating comics requires special skills beyond the purely linguistic. For a start, the space allocated to speech/ thought balloons and narrative captions both defines and confines what can be written within them. And the language of comics is not only verbal but visual, so words and images must interact smoothly. It is no coincidence that perhaps Britain’s greatest living translator of comics, Anthea Bell, famed for her dazzling work on Asterix, is the daughter of Adrian Bell, the first cryptic crossword setter for The Times. As a girl, her lateral thinking was honed every morning when her father would test his latest puzzle on her over the breakfast table.
On May 14, four acclaimed graphic novelists from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain will read from their works, demonstrate their drawing and discuss their work with me at The British Library in a special extra event as part of European Literature Night. Books featured on the night will include the English edition of Judith Vanistendael’s When David Lost His Voice, published by SelfMadeHero, Line Hoven’s Love Looks Away, published by Blank Slate Books,and Max’s Bardin the Superrealist, published by Fantagraphics. The line-up also includes Lucie Lomova’s The Savages, which awaits translation. Their diversity of subjects, from historical documentary and tender family secrets to the loss and lessons of death from cancer, and Dalí-esque philosophical dreamworlds, is sure to fascinate and inspire. Five decades on, Kyle’s ‘graphic novel’ is firmly established, a significant medium with an exciting, innovating future ahead of it.
About the author
Paul Gravett is a London-based freelance journalist, curator, lecturer, writer and broadcaster, who has worked in comics publishing and promotion since 1981. His latest book is Comics Art published by Tate Publishing (2013) and Yale University Press (2014). He is currently co-curating the first exhibition on British comics for The British Library in the summer of 2014.
His website is www.paulgravett.com.
Find out more about European Literature Night, and the writers showcased there.
The British Library exhibition ‘Comics Unmasked’ is open now until 19 August 2014.
Richard Kyle was interviewed by Colville’s Clubhouse about the term ‘graphic novel’.