The Colossus Crawls West

The acquisition of knowledge is not progression from point A to point B. There in fact, is no point B. The Colossus crawls ever westward, overlapping its own footprints, making new impressions in the Earth.

What the Hell is a “Graphic Memoir?”


We have a problem. Admittedly the problem is largely our own faults, but it is still a problem nonetheless. You see, we want to read comics; I mean we want to really read them. Comics however, come with certain stigmas and connotations that we’d like to avoid. Our solution to this initial snag is to then separate “comics” from the mature, complete works we wish to study and out of this is born the tern “graphic novel.” This has become a blanket term for “any long comics to be taken seriously” and has for the most part seems to have served its purpose fairly well. The issue then arises when we have a long comic to be taken seriously, but is not a novel per se. Since in literary terms “novel” comes with certain connotations of fiction, non fictive works such as Persepolis and Blankets which still utilize the comic format are lost in a sort of semantic no man’s land. In one sense these works are graphic novels, because that’s simply the blanket term we’ve decided on. But if they aren’t novels then perhaps we might call them graphic memoirs or graphic autobiographies. The problem here is the word “graphic.” It becomes increasingly clear that without the qualifier “novel”, nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about. I asked a few people I know to be wholly unfamiliar with comics what they thought of the term “graphic” as it related to stories. Several people thought it to mean describing gory or otherwise unsavory details, and one person related it to computer and video game graphics. So then, in describing Persepolis as a “graphic memoir” about a girl living in Iran, these people either picture her being tortured, or trying to find a save point.

We run into similar issues when we attempt to use the word “comic” to describe these works. One thanksgiving in high school I was reading watchmen at my aunt’s house. My uncle asked what I was reading and looking over my shoulder, before I could answer he scoffed and said “Oh that’s a funny book! I thought it was a real book!” and sauntered upstairs in hoarse, raucous laughter. Now the issue here isn’t that my uncle is a dick (which he admittedly sort of is), but that the term “comic” also has a different meaning. Comic books are so named because the first of their breed were reprintings of humorous newspaper comic strips. Even when the medium is dyed a more professional brownish color using rich and complex storylines, its bright primary-colored roots still show. We can, however, confidently embrace the term “graphic” as the most correct and precise definition of the medium. Even when people use graphic to mean violent or unsavory, they are using a definition which means “to show vivid or explicit detail.” We may simply need to suck it up and allow “graphic memoirs” or “graphic historical nonfiction” or “graphic examinations of the human psyche using elements of fiction and non fiction” to simply be called “graphic novels” while people familiarize themselves with the medium. We have a problem, but the solution is mainly patience.


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This entry was posted on April 13, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

Jamel Colvin
Language, Literature, and Writing Major at Eastern Michigan University.
Student of literary theory, psychology, and culture. Strong beer, strong coffee, and 4 gigs of research.


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