Eddie Campbell’s Graphic Novel Manifesto
Note: Eddie Campbell is the author of the autobiographical Alec books and the artist of From Hell, among many other things. You should know this. I had posted his manifesto to the old Movable Type site back in the day, but had neglected to move it over. Since comics manifestos seem to be making the rounds, I feel it my duty to bring it up again. You’re welcome. The manifesto was originally posted on The Comics Journal’s message board in 2004 during a discussion of Not Funnies, an article in the New York Times Magazine. Sadly, that message board has been deleted, so it is up to us to keep the flame alive. —DM
There is so much disagreement (among ourselves) and misunderstanding (on the part of the public) around the subject of the graphic novel that it’s high time a set of principles were laid down.
- Graphic novel is a disagreeable term, but we will use it anyway on the understanding that ‘graphic’ has nothing to do with graphics and that ‘novel’ does not mean anything to do with ‘novel’. (in the same way that ‘Impressionism’ is not really an applicable term, in fact it was first used as an insult and then adopted in a spirit of defiance.)
- Since we are not referring to the traditional literary novel, we do not hold that the graphic novel should be of the supposed same dimensions or physical weight. Thus subsidiary terms such as ‘novella’ and ‘novelette’ are of no use here and will only serve to confuse onlookers as to our goal (see below), causing them to think we are creating an illustrated version of standard literature when in fact we have bigger fish to fry, that is, we are forging a whole new art which will not be a slave to the arbitrary rules of an old one.
- Graphic novel signifies a movement rather than a form. Thus we may refer to ‘antecedents’ of the graphic novel, such as Lynd Ward’s woodcut novels but we are not interested in applying the name retroactively.
- While the graphic novelist regards his various antecedents as geniuses and prophets without whose work he could not have envisioned his own, he does not want to be obliged to stand in line behind William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress every time he obtains a piece of publicity for himself or the art in general.
- Since the term signifies a movement, or an ongoing event, rather than a form, there is nothing to be gained by defining it or ‘measuring’ it. It is approximately thirty years old, though the concept and name had been bandied about for at least ten years earlier. As it is still growing it will in all probability have changed its nature by this time next year.
- The goal of the graphic novelist is to take the form of the comic book, which has become an embarrassment, and raise it to a more ambitious and meaningful level. This normally involves expanding its size, but we should avoid getting into arguments about permissible size. If an artist offers a set of short stories as his new graphic novel, (as Eisner did with Contract with God) we should not descend to quibbling. We should only ask whether his new graphic novel is a good or bad set of short stories. If he or she uses characters that appear in another place, such as Jimmy Corrigan’s various appearances outside of the core book, or Gilbert Hernadez’ etc. or even characters that we do not want to allow into our imaginary ‘secret society’, we shall not dismiss them on this account. If their book no longer looks anything like comic books we should not quibble as to that either. We should only ask whether it increases the sum total of human wisdom.
- The term graphic novel shall not be taken to indicate a trade format (such as ‘tradepaperback’ or ‘hardcover’ or ‘prestige format’). It can be in unpublished manuscript, in partbooks or other serialisation. The important thing is the intent, even if the intent arrives after the original publication.
- The graphic novelists’ subject is all of existence, including their own life. He or she disdains the cliches of ‘genre fiction’, though they try to keep an open mind. They are particulary resentful of the notion, still prevalent in many places, and not without reason, that the comic book is a sub-genre of science fiction or heroic fantasy.
- Graphic novelists would never think of using the term graphic novel when speaking among their fellows. They would normally just refer to their ‘latest book’ or their ‘work in progress’ or ‘that old potboiler’ or even ‘comic’ etc. The term is to be used as an emblem or an old flag that is brought out for the call to battle or when mumbling an enquiry as to the location of a certain section in an unfamiliar bookstore. Publishers may use the term over and over until it means even less than the nothing it means already. Furthermore, graphic novelists are well aware that the next wave of cartoonists will choose to work in the smallest possible forms and will ridicule us all for our pomposity.
- The graphic novelist reserves the right to deny any or all of the above if it means a quick sale