Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Cambridge Companion to the American Graphic Novel

Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey, Fabrice Leroy

What is the American Graphic Novel? Why is it important to study its form, history, and content, and how should one approach this endeavor while opening new ground for the examination of graphic narrative in general? These are some of the key questions addressed in this collection that brings together the best specialists in the field, who explore the most remarkable achievements in this new form of storytelling that is resetting the standards of American literature, from early practitioners such as Art Spiegelman and Jules Feiffer to contemporary authors like Alison Bechdel, and spanning representative voices from African American, LGBTQ+, Asian American, Latinx, and women’s communities.

Graphic novels are no longer just fictional stories mainly intended for entertainment. Since at least the 1970s, writers and artists have worked to provide a range of new content and styles of cartooning to tell long-length stories, conduct journalism, interpret history, narrate autobiography, and develop original works of fiction or autofiction, yet without neglecting the creative and critical dialogue with well-established types of comics fiction like superhero or detective stories. This collection takes as its starting point the twofold idea that the graphic novel reflects as well as shapes the vital diversity of American society. It is not an exaggeration to argue that the American graphic novel, now recognized as a legitimate form of cultural expression and supported by both mainstream publishers and university presses, is proving to be a sounding board for highly personal, democratic, identity-based and informed, and often autobiographically slanted, representations of the state of the nation.

All authors of this collection consider the dual dimension of the words “American” and “graphic novel,” which they examine critically and historically in order to show not only what is at stake behind these general terms, but also what happens when they are combined: Is there something like a typically American way of practicing the graphic novel, and how does this way of storytelling highlight the richness and diversity of the American experience? In this perspective, America is not an essence but an ongoing experience, permanently adapted and reconfigured by those who live it. In a similar vein of inquiry, identity is considered not as a transhistorical essence, but as the continuously changing effect of language, history, religion, ethnicity, cultural background and traditions, and of course all the power relations that accompany and structure this effect. The negotiation of these tensions and relationships through the creative interventions of the graphic novel is at the heart of this book, which frequently opens the frontiers of the national territory, while always taking great care to highlight the importance of historical connections in contemporary practices and productions. This general stance, however, is never undertaken as an abstract framework. Following the example of what the graphic novels themselves propose, most contributors of the book focus on testimonies from individuals and families about their social experience, akin to public diaries or blogs. Indeed, the graphic novel does not generally talk about America from the position of an omniscient narrator able to set out an identity or a teleological history. Likewise, the outlook of this book is strongly informed by a variety of reflections on America stemming from “below,” from inside, and based on individual experiences.

Yet this collection does not only aim at examining the contribution of the graphic novel to the American experience. It also offers a broad survey of the interdisciplinary way of reading graphic narrative today. While the graphic novel is generally defined as a work of text-image narration (often by a single author but also regularly by an artist-writer team) with original content (not strongly associated with genre), published in the form of a book (rather than a magazine or pamphlet), this collection makes room for the widest possible range of graphic narratives, considered through various approaches and methods, from close readings to historical criticism, from stylistic to thematic inquiries, from formalist analyses to discussions of political intent, from individually-oriented to community-focused interpretations, and from print-based observations to multimedia explanations.

What ultimately emerges from this collection is a picture of America and the graphic novel that is at once more complex, critical, and fragmentary than previous considerations on the field of comics and American history studies. The picture we collectively propose aims to be more attuned to a contemporary perspective of the nation and more inclusive of the diversity of its citizens, be they readers or writers.

The Cambridge Companion to the American Graphic Novel edited by Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey and Fabrice Leroy

About The Authors

Jan Baetens

Jan Baetens is Professor Emeritus of cultural studies at the University of Leuven. His work focuses on the theory and practice of contemporary French poetry, cultural theory, and v...

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Hugo Frey

Hugo Frey is Professor of Visual and Cultural History at University of Chichester UK. With Jan Baetens he has published The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (2014) and with Baetens a...

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Fabrice Leroy

Fabrice Leroy is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has published numerous book chapters on French and Belgian Francophone ...

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