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MattBrady
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THE FIRST GRAPHIC NOVEL? STERANKO'S TAKE

special to Newsarama by Daniel Robert Epstein

There has been a misconception in comic book history for many years. For as long as I can remember, Will Eisner's A Contract with God has been touted as the first graphic novel. It's come to my attention recently that Jim Steranko's visual novel, Red Tide hit newsstands and bookstores in 1976 and touts itself as a graphic novel. Eisner's book was published in 1978. These are the facts and there is no disputing it. Steranko wrote, drew, colored, painted the cover, and handled production, including the volume's design and typography.

On Friday July 18, the San Diego Comic-Con will be celebrating A Contract with God as "the real start of this big brother of comic books." They also mention on their site that "many will debate the actual birth of the graphic novel". Aside from Steranko, there’s precious little debate, as you will see in my conversation with Steranko.

A recent Comic Buyer’s Guide poll named Steranko as the 21st most influential artist in comics history-a stunning achievement considering that his total contribution to the form is only 29 stories, all done a quarter century ago. In the late sixties Stan Lee hired Steranko to draw SHIELD for Marvel Comics. He also tackled Captain America and the X-Men (for which he created the classic title lettering), set a relentless pace for others to follow, unleashed a score of imitators, and created a devoted cult of followers who seek out all his work. In addition to creating numerous movie posters, he was called upon by George Lucas to paint the initial production illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark and was among the first to be hired by Francis Ford Coppola for Bram Stoker's Dracula, on which he was the film's Project Conceptualist.

Newsarama: Are you surprised to see that the San Diego Comic-Con is honoring Will Eisner's A Contract with God as the first graphic novel?

Jim Steranko: Not that they're honoring it, but that they've miscredited it. It's puzzling that the SDCC folks would miscall such a historic event because I was their guest in 1999 and generated a Red Tide cover for their program book, in addition to exhibiting all the Red Tide art in a massive sixteen-easel display. You'd think that someone would have noticed. But, their pitch not only misrepresents comic history, but impugns their integrity and discredits my work.

NRAMA: It seems to be a misconception that a lot of people hold. Wizard magazine made a point of it in their 100 Best Graphic Novels article.

JS: See what I mean?

NRAMA: When you first found out what was happening at the convention, were you confused or upset?

JS: Not at all. I started getting emails and phone calls from comics people early this year asking me why SDCC was ignoring Red Tide in their historic overview. I had a lot of other things on my plate and I thought Red Tide could hold its own. But eventually the density of those comments seemed to suggest that I should correct the situation. I contacted the con and they asked me to submit a feature for the souvenir book.

I was working on another project with artist-historian James Romberger and he wrote 1000 words by the deadline they'd given. However, I got an email a few days ago saying they were "not able to include it this year because of the tight deadline." I inquired if they intended to modify their graphic-novel timeline or let their version stand and received no response.

NRAMA: I don't suppose you called Eisner to get his take on it.

JS: I doubt that he's aware of the situation. Whoever created this misconception was someone who simply didn't do their homework and their error resulted in a warped view of comic history.

NRAMA: First thing to make clear then, what is a graphic novel?

JS: Good point. It's never been authoritatively defined, which is peculiar because graphic novels are currently the hottest thing in comics. What's your take?

NRAMA: My feeling always was that graphic novels should be an original comic-book story in paperback or hardcover form.

JS: That would knock out Watchmen [by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons]. I know Jack Katz calls his 24-book The First Kingdom series a graphic novel, but it's really a graphic serial.Watchmen would also qualify the same way. By your definition, all Big Little Books would qualify. But there's a more critical aspect that should be determined: a differentiation between fat, expensive comic books and real graphic novels. If any fat comic is a graphic novel, then 1944's America's Biggest Comics with its 196-page count would qualify.

NRAMA: It's changed a lot in the past few years since graphic novels have been receiving so much mainstream press.

JS: Publishers call almost anything a graphic novel these days. After Red Tide, I received a call from a fan who was aspiring to be a comic artist. We had a conversation about graphic novels because he was about to do his "masterpiece." He described it as being sixteen pages long! By that standard, someone must be working on a three-page graphic novel as we speak! It seems that 48-page graphic novels are common, but miscalled. In Europe, they are appropriately termed albums. In literary terms, a 48-page story wouldn't even qualify as a novella, probably not even a novelette. But in graphic-novel terms, I'd say anything over 100 pages would clear the mark.

NRAMA: Also perfect bound would make it a graphic novel.

JS: Sidewire is another process that could bind 100 pages, but I'd relegate this rule to a minor consideration: a binding does not a graphic novel make.

In order to use the word novel, you should make a correlation to standard literary treatments. The dictionary defines novel as a lengthy story with complex characterizations and density of plot. I'd further add that a novel is a work of continuous text with chapter breaks. A graphic novel would also feature a series of related illustrations. How about those Scribner editions from the 1920s of classic adventure books like Robin Hood, that had as many as five to fifteen illustrations by NC Wyeth or Mead Schaeffer. Do they qualify as graphic novels?

NRAMA: You were the first one who used the term graphic novel.

JS: The words "Visual Novel" appear on Red Tide's cover; the term "Graphic Novel" appears inside the book. I'm not even suggesting I created it, but it was used in the book and in promotional material before publication.

NRAMA: Do you think Eisner would consider his book a graphic novel?

JS: I doubt it. A Contract with God is a collection of short stories. A novel is one continuous story. It couldn't qualify if it was done in 1776.

NRAMA: Another reason the term graphic novel could be used so much is when a distributor is dealing with a bookstore chain like Barnes and Noble and they say we want to put a certain kind of book in your store. In that scenario, you wouldn't give them more than one term to describe that book. You don't say, graphic novels, trade paperbacks and graphic novellas. You use one term.

JS: So? Just because the term is misused doesn't make it correct.

There are many books in the past century which might qualify as graphic novels. The Lynd Ward woodcut books [by 1937 Ward had done five woodcut novels, God's Man followed by Mad Man's Drum, Sons Without Words, and Vertigo] had no words. I recall Mad packaging their comic-book issues in paperback form. The Return of The Fantastic Four was similar, a cut-up comic book, rearranged into paperback form. But just because they're recast as books doesn't make them graphic novels. The elements that apply to a graphic novel should really be well defined, but I doubt that will happen, because publishers with fat comic books insist on calling them graphic novels and fans are too passive to correct the mistake.

NRAMA: What do you think would make San Diego pick A Contract with God as the first graphic novel?

JS: Perhaps Eisner's popularity was a consideration; I think he attends the con on a regular basis. I don't want to speculate on the mind of an anonymous entity, but I'm very grateful whoever made that decision isn't working on nuclear disarmament. San Diego seems to have embraced that idea for years.

However, I am puzzled why Red Tide would be ignored because unlike most "graphic novels," it was produced for bookstores and newsstands by Pyramid Books, one of the country's largest mass-market publishers. It may not be an easy book to find today, but, compared to many other graphic novels with press runs of three or five thousand, Red Tide ran 50,000-plus copies. The original edition was a newsstand version, racked to compete with paperbacks. Simultaneously, there was a Deluxe Edition published as a bookstore item and was solicited as such. Both versions had huge exposure in commercial venues and comic shops.

NRAMA: But how well known is Red Tide in the comic book community?

JS: When the book appeared it was not embraced by the comic-book community because it didn't have word balloons or captions. Believe it or not, they found that shocking! Red Tide ran about 130 pages with two panels per page and text underneath. I used Golden Sectioning, a mathematical formula to arrange elements in a unified structure, to create an image-to-text relationship that readers would be very comfortable with. The text on any given page related only to that page. It was like film, where dialogue, sound effects, and music relate specifically to the scene on screen. I doubt there's been another book published like it since.

What may also have had an alienating effect on comics readers was that the book was created as an homage to such noir films as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. I developed a different way to tell a narrative story that was more related to film than comics and perhaps that was too radical for the existing comics audience.

NRAMA: Did the book gain popularity later on as many works do?

JS: Today's audience is much more receptive to experimental formats, but the book certainly helped pave the way for the new comic and graphic novel formats available today.

NRAMA: Is this book still in print?

JS: No, but several years ago I spoke with Mike Richardson [founder, president, and publisher of Dark Horse Comics] about working with them and the possibility of reprinting Red Tide was mentioned. Originally, the book was done in record time. I produced four pages a day through the winter of 1975. So, the first idea out of my head was what went down on paper. I thought I could improve on that and made the decision to recast Red Tide, uncensored and with new material. It's very rare for an artist to have the opportunity--a second chance--to improve a work, so I'm being as judicious as I can on this one.

We initially talked about it perhaps being finished for Christmas a couple of years ago, but I had other assignments that interfered, like another film collaboration with Francis Coppola. When Francis makes you an offer, it's not good to refuse.

Anyway, people seem to have the impression that it's just a reprint that's recolored, but the truth of the matter is there will be more pages, new sequences and characters, 50 percent of the art will be new and uncensored, and there will be about twice as much text, in addition to being colored using state-of-the-art computer techniques. Those who saw the original won't recognize this version as the same book--and I guarantee it still qualifies as an authentic graphic novel.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 10:33 AM
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Franklin Harris
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quote:

NRAMA: My feeling always was that graphic novels should be an original comic-book story in paperback or hardcover form.

JS: That would knock out Watchmen [by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons]. I know Jack Katz calls his 24-book The First Kingdom series a graphic novel, but it's really a graphic serial. Watchmen would also qualify the same way.


It's silly not to regard Watchmen as a graphic novel (and, by the same logic, From Hell, The Dark Knight Returns, etc.) simply because it was serialized before it was collected in one fat book. Using that argument, most of the great Victorian novels we know today, including the works of Dickens, wouldn't be novels, because most of them first appeared serialized in magazines. No one calls them "collected serials," or anything so absurd; they are novels.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 12:48 PM
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Barry
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quote:
Originally posted by Franklin Harris
It's silly not to regard Watchmen as a graphic novel (and, by the same logic, From Hell, The Dark Knight Returns, etc.) simply because it was serialized before it was collected in one fat book. Using that argument, most of the great Victorian novels we know today, including the works of Dickens, wouldn't be novels, because most of them first appeared serialized in magazines. No one calls them "collected serials," or anything so absurd; they are novels.


Excellent point! I hadn't thought of that!

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Old Post 07-14-2003 01:03 PM
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J Wyatt
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Steranko's hair looked weird in the history channel special.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 01:22 PM
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Nobody
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I have so much respect for Steranko, but he does seem to be very uptight and specific with terminology. From his description of Red Tide, I don't honestly know if I'd consider that a graphic novel.

I'd still like to read it though.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 01:28 PM
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Nobody
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quote:
Originally posted by J Wyatt
Steranko's hair looked weird in the history channel special.


What the hell?

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Old Post 07-14-2003 01:29 PM
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J Wyatt
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What was up with Steranko's PREVUE magazine too? It pretended to be a movie magazine, but it was really a catalog for selling adult books.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 01:34 PM
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MadPiscus
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quote:
Originally posted by Franklin Harris
It's silly not to regard Watchmen as a graphic novel (and, by the same logic, From Hell, The Dark Knight Returns, etc.) simply because it was serialized before it was collected in one fat book. Using that argument, most of the great Victorian novels we know today, including the works of Dickens, wouldn't be novels, because most of them first appeared serialized in magazines. No one calls them "collected serials," or anything so absurd; they are novels.


Interestingly, they do match the later standards he puts forth: a classic novel structure in graphic form. You know, with rising action, climax, and all that jazz.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 01:43 PM
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Rodrigo Baeza
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Re: THE FIRST GRAPHIC NOVEL? STERANKO'S TAKE

quote:
Originally posted by MattBrady
NRAMA: You were the first one who used the term graphic novel.

JS: The words "Visual Novel" appear on Red Tide's cover; the term "Graphic Novel" appears inside the book. I'm not even suggesting I created it, but it was used in the book and in promotional material before publication.




The term "graphic novel" was apparently coined by Richard Kyle in the late 1960's.

Another 1976 graphic novel is Bloodstar, by Richard Corben, John Jakes, and John Pocsik (I don't know if it appeared before Steranko's Red Tide). And before that we have Gil Kane's Blackmark, first published in 1971 as a mass-market Bantam paperback. And I'm sure there are several other pre-1976 examples (some of which Steranko mentions in the interview).

I agree that Red Tide shouldn't be left out of an historic overview of graphic novels, but I wouldn't say that it helped "pave the way" for anything; Eisner's graphic novels and other initiatives like the collected editions and graphic novels that Heavy Metal started publishing in the late 1970's (including the best-selling Alien movie adaptation by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson) have proved to be much more influential than Steranko's graphic novel.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 02:03 PM
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gOgIver
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Cool Keeper of the Flame

Jim Steranko was the heir apparent to Kirby and then he left us. A void not filled until Frank Miller came along 10 years after. Will the torch ever be passed again?

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Old Post 07-14-2003 02:24 PM
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Timothycat
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Chaykin and Delaney's Empire from '78 could also give A Contact with God a challenge for first graphic novel. My guess is that it qualifies as the first American painted original material graphic novel. Does anyone know of anything earlier?

Best,
TimK

Who has, and loves, the original cover art and introduces it as such

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Old Post 07-14-2003 02:34 PM
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Evil Onion
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quote:
JS: Perhaps Eisner's popularity was a consideration; I think he attends the con on a regular basis. I don't want to speculate on the mind of an anonymous entity, but I'm very grateful whoever made that decision isn't working on nuclear disarmament. San Diego seems to have embraced that idea for years.


Is this supposed to be a joke? I love old people jokes they never make any sense.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 03:18 PM
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shakey
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I believe both Steranko and Eisner are predated by Gil Kane's Blackmark, published as a 120 pg paperback in 1971. The "Blackmark" project was a follow-up to Kane's 40 pg "His name Is Savage"Which came out in a larger magazine format in 1968. "Blackmark" was intended to be an ongoing series of books, but the publisher cancelled the project before the second story was released. The "Blackmark" stories later appeared in Conan, and other Marvel publications.

I remeber the industry getting fully behind "Contract With God" with big ads in comic books and and Magazines, while Kane and Steranko's books just came out, with no fanfare.

Eisner's book made a bit more noise than Blackmark or Steranko's effort, but it wasn't first.

I hope that the San Diego Con acknowledges the proper history and goes further to determine the true timeline history of graphic novels.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 03:24 PM
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Jeff Parker
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The Dickens point was a good one!

I'd think any number of European books would qualify and predate this, too. With their larger pages and many more panels, it doesn't matter if they didn't have 100 pages (who picked that number?), there's still at least as much story there.

But Steranko also claims he invented GoGo dancing, so he's still got that...

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Old Post 07-14-2003 03:39 PM
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StatelyWayneManor
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Hmmm. Maybe the con is celebrating the first *good* graphic novel.

(Just being snarky. I never read either Contract or Tide, but I have to say, Steranko comes off a bit ... whiny? ... with this complaint. If it's a worthy piece of literature, it will stand on its own as a credit to its creator. If it fails to make an indelible impression on the audience, it will pass out of publication and fade from memory. Contract is available from Amazon; I can't even find Red Tide on eBay.)

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Old Post 07-14-2003 03:41 PM
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shakey
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Originally posted by J Wyatt
"Steranko's hair looked weird in the history channel special. "

Yeah just like that crackpot Albert Einstein's hair-do.

The man is a genius artist/storyteller . He's also a really nice guy whom I've had the pleasure to talk with at Pulp Magazine shows .

Eisner is also a top flight genius , don't let this become a horse race picking one over the other, just acknowledge the GN work done by all in the historical order they created their works.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 03:42 PM
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Anders Wolleck
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Steranko

I had the great pleasure of having a conversation with Jim at the Big APple Con recently. Super nice to his fans. A lunatic when it comes to dealing with editors, publishers, other creators, press and everyone else.

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heeBGB
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Re: Keeper of the Flame

quote:
Originally posted by gOgIver
Jim Steranko was the heir apparent to Kirby and then he left us. A void not filled until Frank Miller came along 10 years after. Will the torch ever be passed again?


Just my opinion, but I think you could find candidates if you'd consider the work of Paul Pope, Craig Thompson and Chris Ware, and even Brian-Michael Bendis.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 05:51 PM
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heeBGB
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quote:
Originally posted by Timothycat
Chaykin and Delaney's Empire from '78 could also give A Contact with God a challenge for first graphic novel. My guess is that it qualifies as the first American painted original material graphic novel. Does anyone know of anything earlier?



Many of the requirements that Steranko outlines are present in the 1931 book, The Four Immigrants Manga.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 05:54 PM
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Jeremy Holstein
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Definition of a Graphic Novel

I've read Chandler, and while I do think Steranko makes a valid point about predating Eisner's "God", it should be noted that Chandler doesn't conform to what most people consider to be "Comics" or "Graphic Novels".

In Chandler Steranko uses lengthy noir prose placed beneath high-contrast illustions that use alot of positive and negative space, ala what Frank Miller does today in Sin City. There are no word balloons. There is sequential art storytelling happening here, but all the while with that Raymond Chandler-esque prose running beneath. If I remember right the prose sections could stand on their own without the pictures.

There are some wordless sections, and those are clearly "comics", sequential art telling a story. But most of the book one could argue is more an illustrated story than a graphic novel. It's all semantics, people. Since Eisner's work is clearly "comics" its a safer choice than Chandler to label as the first graphic novel.

On a side note I really enjoyed Chandler. Very evocative of the classic Sam Spade type adventures, with some classic Steranko illustrations.

And I'll second what a previous poster said about Steranko. For all the horror stories I've read about the man dealing with editors and the like he was very gracious when I met him at the Comicon. He signed my poster with a smile, and when I told him how much his work meant to me he put his hand on my shoulder and said "thanks, pal." It might sound hokey, but that little gesture of gratitude to a fan meant alot to me.

-Jeremy

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Old Post 07-14-2003 06:06 PM
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hork
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quote:
Originally posted by Franklin Harris
It's silly not to regard Watchmen as a graphic novel (and, by the same logic, From Hell, The Dark Knight Returns, etc.) simply because it was serialized before it was collected in one fat book. Using that argument, most of the great Victorian novels we know today, including the works of Dickens, wouldn't be novels, because most of them first appeared serialized in magazines. No one calls them "collected serials," or anything so absurd; they are novels.


That's a good point, except, by your argument, every trade paperback is a graphic novel (which is basically true). So it's not just Watchmen and From Hell that should be included, but everything that has been collected in that format.

I think the idea, however, is to distinguish between the terms "graphic novel" and "trade paperback." Yes, a TPB is a GN, but the reverse does not necessarily hold true. I'm not sure why we have these distinctions, except maybe to establish separate categories for the Eisner Awards, but whatever.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 07:40 PM
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Taylor Porter
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quote:
Originally posted by Jim Steranko
The elements that apply to a graphic novel should really be well defined, but I doubt that will happen, because publishers with fat comic books insist on calling them graphic novels and fans are too passive to correct the mistake.


I think that's pretty unfair. I can't speak for all fans, of course, but I think that the lack of distinction comes not from our passivity, but the fact that we just don't agree with Steranko. I know that I don't see any reason why the term graphic novel needs to be well defined.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 08:04 PM
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Franklin Harris
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quote:
Originally posted by hork
That's a good point, except, by your argument, every trade paperback is a graphic novel (which is basically true). So it's not just Watchmen and From Hell that should be included, but everything that has been collected in that format.


Not quite. The same reasoning applies to comic books that applies to prose books.

The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, for example, is an anthology because it collects many different stories, related only by character.

But otherwise, yes, just about everything published as a "trade paperback" and containing one story qualifies as a graphic novel. And why not? A graphic novel even need not contain the entire story. No one says "The Two Towers" isn't a novel just because it's the middle of the story, do they? Of course not.

It's mostly a question of length. Perhaps we should refer to short graphic novels as "graphic novellas." In any case, I see no reason to treat comics differently from anything else found between two covers.

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Old Post 07-14-2003 08:45 PM
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jawaplumber
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Jim Steranko is the classic example of a mad creative genius. When it comes to his work, he's amazing. When it comes to his opinions, you have to take a lot of it with a grain of salt. That doesn't mean he's too be ignored or disrespected....just consider the source, that's all.

And personally, I don't care who came first. All I know is that Will Eisner is the master, that's all there is to it

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Old Post 07-14-2003 10:27 PM
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OM
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Registered: Oct 2002
Location: Someplace nowhere near Nat Gertler
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Lightbulb Re: Keeper of the Flame

quote:
Originally posted by gOgIver
Jim Steranko was the heir apparent to Kirby and then he left us. A void not filled until Frank Miller came along 10 years after. Will the torch ever be passed again?


...And maybe that's the problem here. Eisner never left comics while Steranko went off and did his hype magazine publishing thing and abandoned comics pretty much altogether. The innovators who stick with what they're innovating as opposed to those who innovate and move on tend to be recognized far longer by their peers as being innovators as opposed to "one-shot wonders".

Not that Steranko was a "one-shot wonder", but it's obvious he did leave comics behind while Eisner stuck with the industry as a creator...

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Old Post 07-14-2003 11:28 PM
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