BY BYRON PREISSEditor'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
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/