I've been working on a presentation for Jessica Abel's fantastic graphic novel La Perdida, and thus I've been reading about graphic novels. There's a lot of banter about the term "graphic novel": is it just an attempt by comics creators to legitimize (and thereby canonize) their works? Or are we observing the development of a new genre, one that is different than the term "comic" can cover?
I think we're observing the rise of a new genre of literature. Part of my presentation is about how graphic novels are particularly suited to the picaresque: it seems that more and more marginalized voices are using the art form to speak out. They aren't sharing their experiences in film or in novels necessarily; they are drawing their lives out on a page. It's a genre where Art Spiegelman could tell his father's story (Maus); where Marjane Satrapi could tell her tale of growing up in Iran during Iran's political unrest (Persepolis); and where journalist Joe Sacco could explore the situations in Bosnia and Palestine in such a way to bring those realities home to his readers (Palestine and War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96).
In his article "A Comic-Book World", Stephen Tabachnick asserts that we were seeing a new direction of literature. As television and electronic media pervade our culture, graphic novels are the book's response to shortened attention spans and the inability of readers to wade through lines of straight text. I think that this is valid, but I also think that the graphic novel offers much more than that. It has its place not as the successor to the novel, but as a totally new reading experience. I value them for that quality, the world they can convey without words. It takes a skilled artist to know when to use words and when to allow the pictures reflect the themes and ideas that she wishes to convey. Incidentally, Abel is one such artist.
I embrace the teaching of graphic novels, but not in place of literature, but as a new genre. Graphic novels are more than the book's answer to the rise of film and television; they can become a valuable teaching tool, a refreshing and illuminating way to access literature.