Artistic innovation always outruns the vocabulary of critics. Artistic forms and genres are created long before there are words to describe them. Cervantes didn’t know he was working on a great novel when he wrote Don Quixote; he couldn’t have: the novel as a distinct form didn’t exist then, nor would it exist for centuries. If you had asked Cervantes what he was up to, he might have said he was writing a burlesque of courtly romances.
On the same principle, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells didn’t know they were writing science fiction novels. Wells might have had some idea late in life when science fiction as a genre emerged and his earlier work, which he might have thought of as scientific romances, were co-opted as pioneering examples of the genre.
The same principal is true of the graphic novel: now that the form exist, we can see all sorts of ancestors of the form. Books that previously existed as isolated oddities can now be seen as precursors of a form.
In the previous post, Dan mentioned that R.O. Blechman’s The Juggler of Our Lady (1953) can be considered as a proto-graphic novel. True. The same can be said of the many woodcut novels of the early 20th century, as well as the much earlier work of Rodolphe Töpffer. Other candidates for the form include Myron Waldman’s Eve (1943), the 1950 thriller It Rhymes with Lust (done by the team of Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, Matt Baker, and Ray Osrin), Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong (1930), Don Freeman’s Skitzy (1955), as well as a number of works from the early 1970s by Martin Vaughn-James. Raymond Briggs probably belongs on this list.
Just today a publisher sent me Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip, a proto-graphic novel originally published in Italy in 1969, and now available in English thanks to the good offices of the New York Review of Books. I’ll have more to say about the book in another post, but it is an interesting example of Magritte-inflicted surrealism not dissimilar to the contemporaneous work of Vaughn-James.
As more and more proto-graphic novels come to light, we can start seeing some commonalities in the form.
Here are a few things these books tend to have in common (although there are exceptions to every rule):
1. The cartoonists who work on them tend to come from a background outside of commercial comic strips or comic books, either from the fine arts, from children’s literature, or from avant-garde literature. The exceptions here are He Done Her Wrong and It Rhymes with Lust.
2. The works tend to be allegorical or dream-like rather than realistic; that is to say the characters and stories tend to be emblematic rather than follow any of the rules of verisimilitude or psychological realism.
3. In their time, some of these works were very popular and successful. That’s certainly true of Töpffer, some of the woodcut novels, and The Juggler of Our Lady. But there is little sense that they belong to a tradition or are created by a communal context (the woodcut novels might be the exception). Often the cartoonist involved only did one or two such books (Vaughn-James seems to have been more persistent than most).
Most of these books in there time were sports, isolated mutations, freaks of nature. But when we bring all these books together, they do seem to form a sort of tradition: not perhaps a strong tradition like the novel but a quirky, wayward and at times prophetic tradition, like 19th century science fiction.
PS: Someone should make a list of all the proto-graphic novels. That would be a worthwhile resource.