It’s a Graphic Question

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 8th, 2017

This is a graphic novel.

This is a graphic novel.

This is not, but it cohabitates.

As sales of books in comics format have soared over the past several years, most booksellers and publishers have come to use “graphic novel” to provide an umbrella for a wide-ranging genre that includes nonfiction and other forms that defy the definition of “novel.” The term has become easy collective shorthand, but its inaccuracy irks many, including the very artists who make these books, many of whom use and prefer the term “comics.” So how do we resolve this terminology issue at the store?

Kids and their parents are used to the “graphic novels” term, too, and that’s what they come in asking for. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change things, but if we do, we need the shift to be clear to our customers.

We keep Calvin & Hobbes, Get Fuzzy, Garfield, The Far Side and other comic strip / cartoon collections in our juvenile humor section, and keep narrative comics — both fiction and nonfiction comics, and manga — together in their own section. We still call this the Graphic Novels section, because it’s the industry norm and it’s what our customers come in looking for, but it seems time to revisit the terminology, especially since its very practitioners object. But what to use instead?

Many parents still hear the word “comics” and think of comic books and comic strips, and therefore dismiss them in favor of the chapter books they think are better for their children. Now, anyone who reads comics understands how amazingly brilliant they can be, how complex and layered and thought-provoking and powerful. But for customers who grew up with a strict division between chapter books and comic books, the latter of which were generally thought to be merely fluff, the Comics label still carries a stigma.

Our culture has moved quickly over the past several years, so I think it won’t be long before we’ll be completely past any misguided elitism, but we aren’t quite there yet.

I decided to put this question to my fellow children’s booksellers around the country to see if they had any solutions. Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Books in Asheville, N.C., and fellow ShelfTalker blogger, replied, “The whole sequential art storytelling community needs to brainstorm and gives us better labels to sell their books. ‘Graphic novel’ doesn’t work for non-fiction, but at least most people understand it as… not-Garfield. I recently revamped signage and borrowed an umbrella phrase from the ABC catalog: ‘Great & Graphic.’ Underneath it says ‘Comics, graphic novels, manga, etc.'”

I do like “Great & Graphic,” but you just know how many people walking by that section will make the obligatory “graphic” jokes, which gives me a little PTSD from the era years ago when the Flying Pig was transitioning from being a children’s-only store to a general store, and had a signboard outside proudly proclaiming, “We now carry adult books!” You can imagine the endless jokes — even after we re-did the wording to read, “We now carry books for adults!” There was just no good way to say it; it either sounded dirty or childish. I suspect that leaving “Graphic” on its own might have the same result. Maybe Vermonters are just sillier than the rest of the nation.

Amy Fitzgerald from the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., agrees that “parents are more accepting of Graphic Novels than they are of Comics.”

Meghan Goel from Austin’s BookPeople (and another Shelftalker blogger!) wrote, “Our graphic novels / comics up to age 12 are all under a sign saying comics. I agree there are more shades of gray there, especially since we call our teen section graphic novels, but it isn’t something that seems to create confusion (for now). We’re always open to new ideas on this stuff.”

Lyn Roberts from Square Books in Oxford, Miss., had a solution that appeals to me: “In the adult store we use “Graphica” and mix fiction and non-fiction together.” They actually don’t use that term in the kids’ section, but I could see doing that at the Flying Pig.

Julia Hobart at The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass., has a system like our current one. She says, “We are still using Graphic Novels for our section, we also keep our comics separate in the Humor section. I personally prefer that.”

Tildy Banker-Johnson of Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., labels their section “Comics & Graphic Novels,” which is an accurate and appealing term, and may be a result of their being a newer store that opened up already aware of the terminology shift. Like us, Belmont Books keeps Calvin & Hobbes et al. separate in their humor section, so I do wonder if kids ever get confused looking for those in the Comics & Graphic Novels. Even if they do, however, it only takes a single point-out to dispel the confusion.

Graphic novel writers, artists, and comics creators — how would YOU like to see these sections labeled?

Next up: the Teen vs. YA conundrum.

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