Even though some people date the first appearance of the term in an American fanzine from 1964, it is widely agreed that the concept of “graphic novel” was born from a strategic movement when Will Eisner tried to find an editor for his ambitious –and, at the time, wildly heterodox– A Contract with God. All this happened at the end of the seventies, when Eisner had already left behind his glorious The Spirit for a while and his company devoted to drawing educational cartoons, American Visuals Corporation, had already closed its doors. Thus, a classic in life with his expressive Wellesian manners and a firm idealist convinced to expand the possibilities of the medium, the artist dreamt about publishing a book that wasn’t only sold in specialised shops, but was found on the shelves of general bookstores. That’s why Eisner rejected the offer of his editor Dennis Kitchen –whom, back then, was reprinting The Spirit– and had that pang of ambition that took him to request a meeting at prestigious Bantam Books, a publishing house that wouldn’t have opened its doors to just any cartoonist: the creator of Contract with God had the idea of telling his interlocutors that what he wanted to sell them wasn’t a cartoon, but a “graphic novel,” a term that one would think was designed to appease the self-esteem of all those professionals of the publishing world that would never want to become mixed up with such a suspicious thing in their eyes as popular culture. Bantam Books didn’t publish Contract with God, but others did bite the hook… and the rest is history. The success of Contract with God managed to make the term popular, and in the end, other famous successes in that particular (ambitious) modulation of cartoons –above all, Art Spiegelman’s Maus– contributed to consolidating what, from then on, would become a useful tag to classify this category within the publishing world and, in good measure, an efficient passport for the medium to reach and seduce some readers that wouldn’t have dared touch a cartoon before, not even with a stick.
Of course, in this world no concept is ever fixed, and “graphic novel” has ended up referring to something that has made me look at it with a bit of contempt, among other things because it has become a sort of “class tag” that, in the perception of many readers not particularly sensitive to the medium’s subtleties, serves to segregate the cartoon with an alibi from cartoons without an (apparent) alibi. A good friend told me that he had heard someone say once: “I don’t read cartoons, I read graphic novels.” A kick to good sense comparable to “I don’t watch TV, I watch HBO” or to that other now out of fashion one, “On TV I only watch the documentaries of La 2”. But, well, even if the objective definition of the concept is difficult and it’s not easy to establish its delimiting lines, as Santiago García managed to prove in his book on the subject, the truth is that, whether old farts like me like it or not, “graphic novels” exist, and there’s something to do with them, even if that “something” doesn’t mean unconditionally embracing them with the same kind of love. “Graphic novels” exist, among many other reasons, because there are some authors that aren’t exactly cartoonists, or pure cartoonists; or novelists, either. Their discourse is an hybrid one, in which the literary and what Eisner himself would end up calling, in his 1985 essay, sequential art are inseparable parts of a whole. Let’s think, for instance, of Raymond Briggs. Or of the author of today’s Stolen Cartoon: Possy Simmonds, an artist of really sharp satiric gaze (applied to middle class English intellectuals). A gaze that reminds me of, for example, the one of playwright, actress and film director Agnès Jaoui.
In Simmonds’ books there’s a lot of writing, many text blocks that little by little build up organic and complex microcosms, be it the rural cottage inhabited by a best sellers writer and used for creative retirements by much more prestigious colleagues he deeply envies (Tamara Drewe), be it the French village in which an old intellectual recycled as baker ends up in his permanent spiritual retirement and who tends to fantasise about the romantic lives of any neighbour condemned to a tragic destiny (Gemma Bovery). Along that acute, elegant and stylised writings, Simmonds’ books also include drawings that sometimes (not many) work as illustrations and counterpoints to the text, in some occasions inspire and hold elaborate narrative resources and flashy page compositions, and, more often, enlarge and develop the situations further by adding great subtlety to questions such as psychological portraits and gesture misunderstandings. Simmonds, as illustrator, is a great director of (inexistent) actors. Her pencil manages to reveal all the character’s internal lives in a way that hasn’t been reproduced so well by the film directors in charge of adapting her books (Stephen Frears and Anne Fontaine).
This Cartoon belongs to page 29 of book Gemma Bovery, published in Spain by Sinsentido in 2010 and translated by Jordi Giménez Samanes. On it, the protagonist is listening to her partner’s ex-wife in the kitchen of her London flat, and such ex-wife is now leaving with her the children product of her failed marriage as an offense manoeuvre against this recent love relationship she would be delighted to boycott. Pay attention to the contrasted looks of both characters, in the way she plays with depth of field to condemn Gemma to the bottom of her disastrous everyday life, while her antagonist palates the cold dish of her miserable revenge. Let’s not say very loudly that Possy Simmonds is an amazing (drawn) actor director and an astute professional of the mise-en-scene: let’s hope she won’t try to leave the prestigious territory of the graphic novel for the probably yet more prestigious film universe. Let’s hope the greater visibility of an expressive medium won’t leave us without cartoons so charged with emotional layers as the one I’m showing you today.