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#393618 - 07/22/03 07:18 PM EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
Steve Conley Administrator Offline

Registered: 11/27/98
Posts: 2490
Loc: Arlington, Virginia, USA
Editor's note: the following was offered to THE PULSE as an opinion column. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Pulse or its staff.

One of San Diego's Comic-Con International primary themes was the History of the Graphic Novel. In their past year's mailings and advertisements, they cite A CONTRACT WITH GOD as the first graphic novel and its author, Will Eisner, as the "father" of the form. Other sources, including WIZARD, seem to agree.

History, however, does not.

The Eisner book was published in 1978. Two years earlier, in Spring 1976, Pyramid Books, one of the industry's leading paperback houses, released what their promotional pitch described as a "graphic novel." The cover proclaimed it a "Visual Novel" in "the Tradition of CHINATOWN and THE MALTESE FALCON." The hard-boiled thriller was titled RED TIDE (although the cover named it CHANDLER, after its private-eye protagonist). Actually produced the previous year, the 128-page volume was created by Jim Steranko, who wrote, illustrated, colored, painted the cover, and handled production, including the volume's design and typography.

Unlike CONTRACT and most other books erroneously termed "graphic novels" and sold primarily in specialty shops, RED TIDE was an original, mass-market adult crime novel created to retail at American newsstands alongside hundreds of other paperback offerings. The 50,000+ press run was complimented by a DeLuxe Edition (a completely different press run that doubled the physical size of the newsstand edition), which was sold in bookstores (handled through standard book/magazine distributors) and specialty shops (through direct distribution).

It supported its claim to be a graphic novel by adopting the use of continuous text and chapter breaks in traditional literary fashion, with all story pages featuring two panels, the size of which remained constant throughout the volume. Standard comic-book devices, such as captions and dialogue balloons, were not employed. The unique text-and-image format was used here for the first time.

Rather than using typical comics' storytelling, Steranko developed a narrative approach that mirrored the noir films of the 1930-40s and an illustration style that utilized both a hard- and soft-edged treatment (without an inkline or feathering) that approximated cinematic photography, a technique that took RED TIDE another step away from comics.

According to many pros and critics--including the NY Times--the book had a notable impact of the comics field (especially in Europe, where it is still being bootlegged), yet it's credit within the SDCC timeline is conspicously absent. The oversight is imprudently misleading, especially since Steranko created a RED TIDE cover for their 1999 Souvenir Book and displayed all the book's original art in a massive, 16-easel exhibition the same year.

Surprisingly, no one has yet seemed to notice that A CONTRACT WITH GOD is not a novel at all, but a collection of short stories, making it ineligible for graphic-novel status. Many recent reprints also fail to hit the mark for the same reason. Currently, 64-page and 48-page books are being marketed as visual novels, but in realistic literary terms would barely qualify as novellas or even novelettes. If that were the case, however, the 1939, 100-page NEW YORK WORLD'S FAIR comic would qualify, as would the 1944, 196-page AMERICA'S BIGGEST COMIC BOOK and the first nine issues of the 100-page WORLD'S FINEST COMICS. A distinction should be made between expensive, perfect-bound comics and authentic graphic novels, which would fall somewhere between the Scribner's Illustrated Classics and reprints of DICK TRACY newspaper strips.

According to Steranko, most efforts released under "the graphic novel" banner are simply "fat comic books." WATCHMEN was created as a visual serial, similar to THE FIRST KINGDOM. THE ROAD TO PERDITION is a B&W comic book, similar to the SIN CITY volumes. Wrightson's FRANKENSTEIN and Kubert's FAX FROM SARAJEVO would qualify, whereas THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS would not.

Illustrated books have a long tradition, but few, if any, can be characterized as graphic novels. Lynd Ward's woodcut books, for example, presented stories using a single image per page, but were without words, one of the elements required to qualify as a "novel." Other elements would be page length, complexity of characterizations, density of plot and, of course, a continuity of illustrations.

Perhaps a clearer definition of the term would provide the graphic novel with the credibility it deserves. The contribution RED TIDE made to the form was significant, regardless of the oversight, ignorance, or politics of armchair historians and chatroom ideologists. By any reasonable definition, it was the first Graphic Novel by a major comics creator, an original work produced for the mainstream bookstore audience, and one that helped open the door for all others that followed.

San Diego: take off the blinders.

Preiss was involved with the creation of RED TIDE and co-published it with Pyramid Books under the BPVP imprint/

#393619 - 07/22/03 07:37 PM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
RANDY Offline

Registered: 05/12/00
Posts: 2343
Loc: U.S.A.
This is an argument that will probably never be settled and perhaps it's just as well that it's not be since it's just one of the many things that keeps the comics field interesting. However, with all due respect to Jim Steranko and Byron Preiss I'm sure that both of them would have to admit that Gil Kane's "His Name Is Savage!" and "Blackmark" fullfill their definition of what a "Graphic Novel" is and both books predate "Chandler" by at least six years.

#393620 - 07/22/03 08:51 PM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
NatGertler Offline

Registered: 07/10/99
Posts: 4618
There are claims and logic in here that are dubious at best.

A Contract With God And Other Tenement Stories is not a novel; I don't know of any claims that it is. That does not, however, prevent it from being a "graphic novel" as the term is used any more than the fact that the latest issue of X-Men is not a book nor is it particularly comic prevents it from being a "comic book".

To make it more bizarre, A Fax from Sarajevo is cited as something that should qualify as a "graphic novel", when it too would not qualify as a novel due to its non-fiction nature. The inclusion of "Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein" in the graphic novel category is particularly odd; unless there is some volume that I'm unaware of, what is being refered to is an edition of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's prose novel Frankenstein that had Wrightson illustrations every few pages. It was very much in the long tradition of illustrated novels, not dependent at all on the images to convey story (indeed, a full chapter passes without any illustration whatsoever). The apparent objection to collected serialized material qualifying as a graphic novel would also rule out the 1983 Wrightson edition, as it combined an aged prose piece with illustrations that had been published in the 1970s, in addition to new ones.

While there may be an argument to be made that the "Chandler" volume should have a notable place in comics history, this piece does not make it well. The argument mixes mean-spiritedness and ignorance with the ridiculous claim that "by any reasonable definition, it was the first Graphic Novel by a major comics creator" when there are all sorts of possible definitions and the author seems unwilling to even work consistently with one. Preiss may be trying to redefine the term for his own benefit, but if so he might at least do the intellectually honest thing of providing a definition that can be addressed, rather than sloughing off the possibility that any definition might exist that wouldn't serve his needs.

#393621 - 07/22/03 08:52 PM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
shakey Offline

Registered: 01/12/02
Posts: 230
Loc: Niles Il USA
wink Here we go again I agree with randy about Kane's paperback "Blackmark". "His Name is ...Savage" was more like a 60's b/w Warren magazine publication, like Creepy and Vamperella .

Anyone know if the debate was acknowledged by any talks at the SD con?

#393622 - 07/22/03 09:27 PM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
Batlash Offline

Registered: 09/13/02
Posts: 106
I mentioned this before, but it surprises me even more now. Jim Steranko might be forgiven for forgetting the two previous volumes in the "Fiction Illustrated" series, "Schlomo Raven" by Tom Sutton (if memory serves) and "Starfawn" (or something like that) by Steve Fabian. Steranko's got his own drum to beat. But it's just astounding to me that Byron Preiss, the editor of the series, doesn't seem to remember them either. Perhaps they just weren't interesting enough... too much like "fat comic books." While "Red Tide" is certainly the superior of the three, you would have to believe that they too, being part of the same series of books, were also graphic novels. confused

#393623 - 07/22/03 10:45 PM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
wrtiii Offline

Registered: 07/28/00
Posts: 32
Loc: Ithaca, NY USA
This whole thing reminds me of the "what is science fiction" debate that also has gone, and will go, on forever: Does Frankenstein count? But some of Preiss' comments are clearly not relevant. Dickens certainly was writing novels even when the successive chunks of them were being published as serials in magazines as they were completed. Ruling out Watchmen because it was published as a series of pamphlets first seems to be splitting hairs. And many comic strips read like novels when you take a lot of them together, and ignore the bridging text at the beginning of each page; certainly a story arc of Prince Valiant reads like a short novel.

When talking about issues such as "who fathered the graphic novel", precedence is often given to the example that everybody remembers. Frankly, I think very few people in the US remember Chandler; I have a copy around here somewhere, but I certainly don't remember much about it. A Contract with God was striking enough that afterwards people remembered it as something special, and that is the way it helped define a new form.

#393624 - 07/23/03 12:31 AM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
NatGertler Offline

Registered: 07/10/99
Posts: 4618
One additional note:
Unlike CONTRACT and most other books erroneously termed "graphic novels" and sold primarily in specialty shops, RED TIDE was an original, mass-market adult crime novel created to retail at American newsstands alongside hundreds of other paperback offerings.
This is at best a misleading description of A Contract With God. It was published by Baronet Publishing, who were a bookstore-oriented company. Preiss and Steranko should know that, as they worked on The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, which Baronet also released. The fact that there has been continued interest and availability in Contract through comic shops may have led eventually to more sales there, but it was designed for the mainstream reading market.

#393625 - 07/23/03 07:52 AM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
heeBGB Offline

Registered: 10/06/01
Posts: 353
Originally posted by BYRON PREISS:
San Diego: take off the blinders.

Yeah, take those blinders off .
"American comics are so constipated." -- Frank Miller

#393626 - 07/23/03 09:21 AM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
Nato Offline

Registered: 07/16/01
Posts: 102
Loc: San Antonio, TX
Steranko and Eisner are both giants in the comic book field, whose indisputable artistic achievements changed the entire face of the medium for the better. In light of his many, many other remarkable accomplishments-- and Eisner's as well-- it does Steranko no credit to see him quibbling over a distinction that's hazy at best.

It's kind of the "ladies, ladies, you're both pretty" situation.

-- Nato

#393627 - 07/23/03 09:47 AM Re: EISNER OR STERANKO? CHECK THE FACTS
ctsmith83 Offline

Registered: 07/06/01
Posts: 248
Loc: Canada
What about Herge's Tintin books?

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