So who REALLY created the graphic novel?

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Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel is a new book by former DC publisher Paul Levitz that looks at Eisner’s historical contribution to comics. And New York magazine has just excerpted the chapter in which Levitz discusses how and why Eisner is credited with being the midwife of the graphic novel form.

Of course the origin of the GN is a subject heatedly debated, as the article’s intro puts it, “The origin of the graphic novel is a bit of a detective story, and [Eisner is] a principal suspect.” And Levitz writes that calling Eisner the “father of the gn” is “loaded with inaccuracy, emotion, and controversy, even among those with deep respect for Eisner and his work.”

Who then are the other suspects? Levitz notes the phrase “graphic novel” was used on the cover of a 1972 issue of The Sinister House of Secret Love, perhaps the greatest title for a comic ever. So if you want to claim that “graphic novel emerged from the sinister house of secret love,” I think we can stop right there and say job well done. But Levitz, now allowing his scholar flag to fly, digs deeper into well known suspects and more shadowy players such as Otto Nückel and Richard Kyle. I don’t have time to dig in to Levitz’s report right now, but I’m sure comics scholars will be having a field day sooner or later.

I doubt we’ll ever know who really invented the graphic novel. Like the Television, it had many parents. If you look at it as a sidestep of the picture books, or go with Spiegelman’s preferred pioneers like Masereel and Milt Gross (who both influenced Eisner), it was just sitting by the side of the road waiting for someone to kickstart it on the journey to 21st century art form.

Speaking of Eisner and Levitz, the latter will be in conversation with Eisner collaborator Jules Feiffer tomorrow night at the SVA theater. It’s a fundraiser but tickets are still available.

An Evening with Jules Feiffer and Paul Levitz 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015
School of Visual Arts Theatre
333 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011

7:00pm | A Conversation with Jules Feiffer and Paul Levitz—Silas Theatre
8:30pm | Book Signing—SVA Theatre Lobby, in partnership with the SVA Campus Store

General Admission Tickets: $20
SVA Student Tickets: $5

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8 COMMENTS

  1. The first real graphic novel would have to be the “Four Immigrants Manga” by Henry Kiyama, released in 1931. Eisner and the rest followed.

  2. The first volume of Tintin came out in 1930. Just saying… lots of early examples. But Eisner did get the ball rolling again and this time it worked.

  3. I would say the Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck was the first Graphic Novel. It was definitely a story told in pictures, in book format, sold in bookstores and remained in print for decades. I know some might think it’s not “comics” because of the absence of word balloons, but if that’s what you think then feel free to also deny Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn as a Graphic Novel too. While I agree the method the story is told is unusual I don’t consider it not comics, anymore than I would where a story would have no dialogue or was told in all splash pages.

    I do know in North America, the term Graphic Novel was created by Richard Kyle. I did an interview with him about it here: http://www.collectortimes.com/2012_07/Clubhouse.html and within that address is a link to the 1964 fanzine article where he first coined the term.

    Also of note, the first book (not comic) that has the term graphic novel on it is George Metzger’s Beyond Time and Again, which was co-published by Richard Kyle.

  4. I support Rodolphe Töpffer as the creator of graphic novels. Obadiah Oldbuck (originally Histoire de M. Vieux Bois) was the first to be created (1827, published 1837), but the first to be published was Histoire de M. Jabot (created 1831, published 1833). Those works came well before all other first GN hopefuls and were indeed book format (created as such!) picture stories that remained in print for a long time. The lack of word baloons, that US (and JUST US) specialists used to invalidate them as the first print comics should hardly be an issue.

  5. A quick shout-out-cum-plug for Raymond Briggs and Posy Simmonds of England. From the 70s onward, their work was, at the time, regarded as picture-books for children, but clearly counts as graphic novels by today’s standards (and certainly not only for children either).

  6. Growing up I’d always heard that Steranko claimed the title (as he often does) for Chandler, or Gil Kane for “His Name is… Savage!” Now with the wealth of information that the internet provides these both seem silly claims. What’s the criteria? A comic designed for an adult audience? The packaging of the pages in a larger format?

  7. On a tangent.

    In the 90’s, Harlan Ellison was an occasional guest on the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. At the time there was an anthology comic adapting stories of Harlan’s. (Dream Corridor was the title, I think)

    When Snyder plugged the collected edition book when Harlan was on, Snyder called it a graphic novel. Harlan quickly corrected him, saying it wasn’t a graphic novel, but a high quality comic book. His intent being that he didn’t like the term graphic novel, as it is all too often used as a euphemism to distance a work away from mere “comics”.

    Harlan clearly showed his love and respect for the medium in that moment.

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