At a recent school visit Hope Larson, who writes and draws amazing graphic novels for young people, said in her opening comments to the students that she refers to herself as a cartoonist, not a graphic novelist. This piqued my curiosity, as I often struggle with the correct nomenclature for comics and graphic novels and the people who create them. Based on past conversations on the children’s bookseller listserv I participate in, plenty of others in my job wrestle with this, too. So I followed up with Hope after the school visit and she shed some light on it for me.
I struggled over what label to use in the publicity surrounding your recent events and eventually settled for “graphic novelist” in most of it. You mentioned in your talk that you refer to yourself as a cartoonist instead of a graphic novelist. Could you expand on that a little?
Cartoonist is an all-purpose label that means “a person who writes and draws comics.” The comics they’re making can be webcomics, superhero comics, art comics, literary graphic novels, newspaper comics, or anything else. It’s my preferred term, and while I can’t speak for everyone, it’s also the preferred term of most people I know who do my job. One thing to note is that the cartoonist label wouldn’t apply to someone who only writes, but doesn’t draw, comics—that person would be a comics writer. The drawing aspect is key.
Of course, from the point of view of a children’s bookseller who has to get books past the older generation of gatekeepers (namely, parents and grandparents buying books for kids), the “cartoon” part of “cartoonist” seems like it could be a turnoff to customers who have been slow to warm up to graphic works as “real books.” The term graphic novel has all sorts of problems, but at least the “novel” part of it has a bit of gravitas to woo the doubters.
Back to describing the job of the creators themselves: When I need to come up with a descriptor for the next creator of graphic novels that Spellbound hosts, something super brief for the Facebook page, the flyers, the local community event calendars, will I opt for “cartoonist” now that I know that’s likely to be the preferred term? Or will I stick with “author/illustrator of graphic novels” or “graphic novelist” because I can count on those terms being recognized by my target audience, the parents and grandparents reading the event listing who might bring the child to the cartoonist’s event? As Hope pointed out, the term cartoonist is really only for one who both writes and draws, but often one person will take different roles on different projects.
Hope herself has worked on graphic novels that she both wrote and drew (including Chiggers, Mercury, and her new book All Summer Long), some that she wrote but didn’t draw (including the Goldie Vance series, the Four Points series drawn by Rebecca Mock, the first three volumes of the DC Rebirth Batgirl series), and has drawn books she didn’t write (the bestselling graphic novel adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and L’Engle’s Intergalactic P.S. 3: A Wrinkle in Time Story). As an overall career descriptor, though, cartoonist fits since she does both.
I have a feeling I’ll stick to the old standby terms for now in the short descriptions, but where I’m afforded more space, in press releases, newsletters, and website event descriptions, I’ll try to make sure I’m incorporating the preferred term of the person I’m hosting and maybe incrementally educate my audience of gatekeeper customers at the same time.