Charles McGrath posits that when novels finally die and get shelved, comic books are what people will read. Maybe this is the logical conclusion of a cycle in literature: people draw cws on walls in caves, they invent letters and words, turn them into monstrous volumes that people in high art will call ridiculous and then later praise and intellectualize, and then there are graphic novels:
I'm not a big comic book fanatic or expert, but reading the article made me more interested, and I want to get my hand on that McSweeney's comics issue. Then again, that just might be my Dave Eggers fangirl calling me.
"The term ''graphic novel'' is actually a misnomer. Satrapi's ''Persepolis'' books (another installment is due this summer) are nonfiction, and so, for that matter, is ''Maus,'' once you accept the conceit that human beings are played, so to speak, by cats, dogs, mice and frogs. The newest book by Chester Brown (who drew the cover for this issue of The Times Magazine) is a full-scale, 200-plus-page comic-book biography (which took five years to research and draw) of Louis Riel, who in Brown's native Canada occupies roughly the position that John Brown does here. Nor are all these books necessarily ''graphic'' in the sense of being realistic or explicit. (When I mentioned to a friend that I was working on an article about graphic novels, he said, hopefully, ''You mean porn?'')
Many practitioners of the form prefer the term ''comix,'' with that nostalgic ''x'' referring to the age of the underground comics, which were sold in head shops along with bongs and cigarette papers. Scott McLoud, the author of a very helpful guide (in comic-book form) called ''Understanding Comics,'' prefers the slightly pretentious term ''sequential art.'' Alan Moore, creator of ''The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,'' likes ''big expensive comic book''; Spiegelman is partial to ''comic book that needs a bookmark.''
But for want of a universally agreed-on alternative, the graphic-novel tag has stuck, and it received something like official sanction a year and a half ago when Spiegelman and Chris Oliveros, the publisher of Drawn and Quarterly, persuaded the book-industry committee that decides on subject headings to adopt a graphic-novel category with several subsections: graphic novel/literature, graphic novel/humor, graphic novel/science fiction and so on. Afterward, Spiegelman turned to Oliveros and said, ''I think we've just created the state of Israel -- one great big boundary dispute in one little corner of the bookshop globe.''
The center of this dispute -- the comic book with a brain -- is a somewhat arbitrary and subjective place, not unlike pornography in Justice Stewart's famous formulation (you recognize it when you see it). But a few generalities may be hazarded. First of all, the graphic novel is not just like the old Classics Illustrated series, an illustrated version of something else. It is its own thing: an integrated whole, of words and images both, where the pictures don't just depict the story; they're part of the telling."