Please use the insult “graphic novel” properly ! (An Open Letter to David and Margaret)


Hitting the wrong target 


I am a massive fan of ABCs David and Margaret At the Movies TV show. Both David Stratton and Margaret Pomerantz are the most knowledgeable, intelligent and eloquent movie critics – and fans – in Australia, if not the world. So, it pains me to write this missive, to appeal to them to use the insult “graphic novel” properly.

I was moved to write after watching this review of the 300 sequel, 300:Rise of An Empire. In it, both Margaret and David use the term “graphic novel” in a derogatory way, primarily to deride the way the film’s visual effects constantly overshadow, and interrupt, the narrative. Now, obviously as a lover of comic books and graphic novels I would rather they never use either term as a way to insult film, but on some level I understand what they mean. However, what really annoys me is the way they use the terms to deride those aspects of a film that are cinematic tropes, NOT graphic novels/comic book ones. 

What do I mean ? I mean I would not mind too much if Margaret and/or David were to look down on a choice that is based on comic book tropes. For example, it makes sense to complain that in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films it strained credulity that virtually every villain had some connection to Peter Parker, as that is a trope which comes firmly from the comics. It is also reasonable to point out that a WW2 super soldier would not be able to stand up to a god-like alien for even two seconds, making the fight scene between Captain America and Thor in the Avengers film a bit silly as again, this sort of thing happens all the time in Avengers comics. In my heart of hearts I would cringe to hear these complaints, but I accept they are reasonable.

What is NOT reasonable is to blame as an artefact of graphic novels or comic books aspects of a film that are cinematic in nature. as such, it does not make sense to say that the slow-motion, over the top fight scenes which punctuate 300: Rise of an Empire are bad because they come from graphic novels, as these are visual effects that come from movie-making. This ‘bullet time” effect comes from the Wachowski siblings’ Matrix films, not from any comic book or graphic novel. Similarly, the huge amounts of blood flying at the screen is an old trope used in everything from Hammer horror films to the remake of Carrie (not to mention the original Carrie of course). again, this is a cinematic effect, not a graphic novel one. 

To be charitable, I understand their confusion. Over the past thirty years comic books have used more tricks of the cinematic trade, and artists like Frank Miller (who is mentioned in the review) have made a career out of using these tricks to tell a graphic novel story in a new way. So when you read the original 300, Sin City or Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot comics you can see these cinematic techniques used abundantly. This does not mean, however, that they are graphic novel or comic book techniques, but film ones borrowed to be used in graphic novels.  A comic may use the image of a rocket stuck in the moon’s eye, but this does not change the fact the image was first used by the film-maker Georges Méliès. 

Now this may seem pedantic, but when talking about people who have shown considerable intelligence and ability to research I expect more. So, I respectfully suggest both Margaret and David at least read Scott McClouds Understanding Comics, to get an idea of what  graphic novel techniques are, and how they differ from cinematic ones.




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