A Contractual Definition

I wanted to share an interesting story that I read about the invention of the term ‘Graphic Novel’. Well, it is more of a blurb than a story, but invention is the most apt word, invention born of necessity.

Will Eisner is one of the, if not the, greatest comics artist ever. He has 3 great contributions to the field of comics that come to mind – one, the creation of ‘The Spirit’, two, the creation of instructional books taking close looks at the art and science of the medium, and three, making serious comics a possibility. One of the top industry awards for comics makers is called the ‘Eisner’.

Now a career so illustrious that every future practitioner owes a debt to you should mean that you reach a stage in your life when anything you do is welcomed with respect and given validity. But here comes the story I mentioned.

In 1978, Eisner had readied a collection of stories by the name of ‘A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories’, which were not action or humour or horror stories, but stories of the private lives of residents of a building, the side that no one ever sees of them, not even their own families. These stories were full of pathos, an ingredient which was not the staple of the industry that fed children and teenagers.

After an almost four decades long career, after firmly establishing himself as a marketable artist with landmark works, he was yet not sure that he would be able to sell his new collection to a publisher. His concept seemed just what would be rejected for its unsupportable content. So in a pre-emptive move, the following incident occurred, in Eisner’s own words:

“I called the president of Bantam Books in New York, who I knew had seen my work with The Spirit. Now, this was a very busy guy who didn’t have much time to speak to you. So I called him and said, ‘There’s something I want to show you, something I think is very interesting.’

He said, ‘Yeah, well, what is it?’

A little man in my head popped up and said, ‘For Christ’s sake, stupid, don’t tell him it’s a comic. He’ll hang up on you.’ So, I said, ‘It’s a graphic novel.’

He said, ‘Wow! That sounds interesting. Come on up.’

“Well, I did bring it up and he looked at it and looked at me through his reading glasses and said, ‘This is a comic book, bring it to a smaller publisher,’ which I did. . . . At the time, I thought I had invented the term, but I discovered later that some guy thought about it a few years before I used the term.”

Another list comes to mind now, this one with two items, not three – first, not even Will Eisner knew how to define comics and thought he’d come up with something cleverer than it really was, and two, even a master like him was struggling to redefine something, which shouldn’t have needed such effort.

Is it futile to ask why the definition becomes a limitation too often? And even now we are trying so hard to find a definition, that maybe if we ever find the perfect one we might just loose all ability to redefine.

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