Headlines of the "Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!" variety, once thick on the ground, have grown mercifully rare. Oh, these articles still crop up, but as we've mentioned before, they now read like relics of a less enlightened age, bearing all the cultural relevancy of the sock garter.
It's become increasingly difficult to argue that the comics form isn't a medium unto itself that can tell compelling human stories with emotional weight. (Some folk still do attempt to argue precisely this, of course, and it can be entertaining to watch them try.)
Last week, David Small's Stitches was nominated for a National Book Award, making it only the second comics work to achieve that distinction. In the publishing world, and the comics world, this news has been received (at least online) with a mixture of enthusiasm and confusion.
The enthusiasm's easy to understand. As I've said elsewhere, Stitches is a haunting, deeply felt and gorgeously drawn book. (Here's an excerpt.)
The confusion, on the other hand, requires a bit of unpacking.
After the jump: Why the term "graphic novel" is the "Kleenex" of the publishing world; Why you shouldn't leave very young children in the Norton and Co. daycare center, and what the Young Adult category has in common with Celebrity Jeopardy!
There've been several different but interrelated reactions to the news of Stitches' nomination. We'll take them one at a time.
"Woo! Comics Have Arrived at Last!"
Yeah, well. Like all nerds, we comics geeks harbor a thirst for approval that's constantly at odds with our wariness of mainstream recognition. Call it the Dark Knight effect. While there were plenty of "it's about time!" reactions, a "so what?" contingent soon emerged, pointing to Maus' special Pulitzer, 17 years ago now, and the increasing frequency with which comics appear on year-end best-books lists nowadays.
"Only Some Comics Have Arrived. Woo."
There was also this, from cartoonist Ben Towle (h/t The Beat, as always):
Until there's a sizable adult readership for comics/graphic novels which do not derive their appeal from a factual/memoir-based connection to their narratives, comics cannot be said to have truly "arrived" as an art form.
You should read his whole post, but what he's pointing out, here, is that most of the graphic novels that you non-comics types out there have ever heard of are not, technically, novels.
They're memoirs: Maus, Fun Home, Persepolis, Stuck Rubber Baby, American Splendor, Blankets, Cancer Vixen, etc. And unlike the first comics work nominated for a National Book Award (the 2006 novel American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang), Stitches is another memoir. According to Towle, it's not comics, but this one specific subgenre within the comics medium, that has really acheived critical and public acceptance.
Now, yes: People still refer to all "literary" comics as "graphic novels" and will continue to do so, but that's only because you hear the term "graphic memoir" and think OJ Simpson's If I Did It. The New York Times, sensibly if boringly, lumps fiction and non-fiction comics alike under the catch-all term "graphic books."
I get Towle's point about the disproportionate popularity of non-fiction comics, but it's not like there aren't actual graphic novels that have achieved mainstream success - such funnybook fictions as Jimmy Corrigan, Ghost World and, of course, Watchmen. (It's too soon to add this year's amazing Asterios Polyp to this list, but mark my words.)
And I don't think it makes sense to expect the memoir vs. fiction dynamic in comics to look any different than it does everywhere else in publishing: Memoirs, whether or not they come with pictures and word balloons, sell. (This truth is not lost on writers of fiction. A novelist friend muttered to me once, seeing his book on the remainder table, "I should've called it This One Time Daddy Yelled At Me, Boo-Hoo: A Memoir.")
"It's Like Harry Potter. Except, Instead of Spells, There's Cancer."
Turns out, Stitches wasn't nominated in the non-fiction category, alongside bios of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Mithradates. It, like Yang's American Born Chinese before it, was nominated in the Young People's Literature category.
Mmmmyeah. A little background on Stitches: It's a sad, unsettling and ultimately harrowing chronicle of being raised by unthinking and uncaring parents. It's dark, and not dark in the funny, Roald Dahl/Lemony Snicket sense; it's dark in the Oops I Gave Our Son Cancer — Let's Not Tell Him! sense. Small recounts how he eventually rescues himself, yes, and the book's central message is the life-affirming power of art. But one of the things I didn't mention in the review is how much the abject psychological horror of the book's closing passage has stayed with me.
If Stitches is a kid's book, expect to see Last Exit to Brooklyn on Reading Rainbow any day now.
But glancing at the other nominees, it's clear that "Young People's Literature" doesn't mean young kids. No, it's a confusing publishing term meant to stand in for "Young Adult," an entirely different confusing publishing term. And when you consider the kind of cheery fare we've historically foisted upon our teens - A Separate Peace, Diary of a Young Girl, Old Yeller, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Bridge to Terabithia, and other tearjerkers you wouldn't feel comfortable lending to a prisoner on suicide watch - Stitches seems less of an outlier.
"It's Just Like That Time Homer Entered that Nuclear Plant Design Contest For Kids!"
The other thing to keep in mind is that was the book's publisher, Norton and Co., who submitted the book into that category for consideration.
Curious why they'd do that? So was the publishing industry blog Galleycat, who called up the Norton publicist.
"We always intended to submit Stitches in the young people's category. We knew it would appeal to a YA audience as well as an adult audience," she told them.
But book blogger Colleen Mondor wasn't buying it:
How about they always planned to enter it in [the young people's literature category] because they thought they had the best shot there? Would a graphic novel memoir hold up in the adult category against more traditional heavy hitters like Fordlandia and The First Tycoon? This is only the second graphic novel to make it to the finals and the first one was - yeah, you know it already, in the YP category. Looks like hedging your bets to me.
Mondor and several of her commenters like Stitches as a book just fine; what they don't like is how its presence on the NBA's young adult list means that some other book - a book that WAS written expressly for the teen audience - didn't get nominated.
I tend to agree with that, because even if Norton's intentions were true, it looks to the casual viewer as if they shunted the book to the YA category either because they believe comic = kids' book, or because they cynically regarded the category as the dumbed-down Celebrity Jeopardy! of publishing.
But then, I'm biased: Stitches is one of the best books I've read this year, and I think it could easily stand up to those big-boy books in the non-fiction category. And take 'em.
We'll find out next month if Stitches cleans up like Andy Richter or goes down in flames like Wolf Blitzer. In the meantime, Small can rest assured that his book will receive the thoughtful consideration it deserves, because we comics nerds have got one of our own on the inside.
One of the judges in the Young People's Fiction category this year: Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese.