Like the words “blog” or “hipster,” the notion of “classic” literature is one of those ideas that is too broad, too subjective to be nailed down by any one definition. Still, as a concept, “reading the classics” still means enough that it sticks around. We might argue about what those books are, but we still have some idea what we’re arguing about.
Speaking of words with slippery meanings, let’s talk about “graphic novels.” For most, a graphic novel is a serious comic, one with grown-up themes and literary aspirations. It’s a way to separate Maus and Black Hole from the likes of Peanuts and Batman. In the early ’00s, there was a move among cartoonists to reclaim the word “comic” — the binary idea that comics were serious or not serious was detrimental to the medium — and yet “graphic novel” persists. We can’t shed the phrase because it still means enough: it continues to define a certain type of book and a certain kind of audience.
Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is arguably the first graphic novel. In many ways, it resembles a picture book more than it does a comic with panels, but the strong contrasts imbue God with a harsh, gritty sense of realism as Eisner moves through four tales based on his childhood growing up in a Jewish tenement in New York. It’s an immensely influential work, especially as an autobiographical work, without which there would be no Blankets, Fun Home, or Persepolis.
As for overlooked classics, I’d refer to the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Similarly, Tatsumi worked in “manga,” but when he wanted to write more serious, realistic comics, he coined the phrase “gekiga” to make the distinction to readers. He published darkly comic stories about people in soul-crushing factory jobs, botched plastic surgeries, sexual perversions, and the crippling loneliness imposed by modernizing postwar Japan. The severe lines and heavy inks with which Tatsumi draws Tokyo makes it seem almost dystopian.
Tatsumi never read Eisner (at the time, few comics were not translated overseas), and in fact, most of his work pre-dates A Contract with God. But the fact that both cartoonists were, in parallel, making conscious efforts to create more realistic comics shows that it was as much of a need as it was an innovation in the medium. Eisner himself didn’t think up the phrase “graphic novel,” but God is the book that popularized the term. Perhaps we should give more credit to the underrated work of Tatsumi — only in the past four years translated into English in a number of lovely collections — who was deliberate about defining a literary push forward for the medium.