I was listening to NPR this morning and they had a short feature on Toby Barlow's new book, Sharp Teeth, a contemporary werewolf story written in free verse. I was only half-listening, and heard some references to Homer and whatnot, but then caught Barlow describing his book as a "graphic novel without pictures."
The NPR website lists the full quotation: "a ripping yarn with the extra words ripped away ... a graphic novel without the pictures, or a hard boiled novel that's been boiled down to a reduction sauce."
As Jude Law said in I Heart Huckabee's: wait, what does that even mean?
Isn't the essence of comics (and hence, graphic novels) something about the words and pictures working together to carry the narrative? Or just pictures, when there are no words? The excerpt I read looked more like an epic poem than anything anything else. Isn't poetry already distilled language, concentrated imagery, that conveys more with less? Does this metaphor really add any depth to the description that calling it poetry doesn't?
I don't think so. And I think there might be another reason behind its use. Googling the phrase only garners two hits: in a review of Richard Morgan's first novel, the science fiction story Altered Carbon and in a review of comics writer Warren Ellis's first prose book, the gonzo detective novel Crooked Little Vein. In addition, Barlow's book itself sports this blurb from Scott Smith: "If Ovid had been raised on a steady diet of Marvel Comics, Roger Corman, and MTV, he might have written something like Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth." All this seems to indicate to me that something else is going on.
I think this metaphor is the highbrow marker for confusing form with genre when thinking or talking about comics. I don't think any of the three uses of this metaphor - even by the author himself - really indicates anything about the narrative structure or energy of the text; I think they're shorthand (or code) for saying something about the book's content and its relative value or merit, the same way an action film might be accused of having a "comic book plot."
I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I think it is what's happening.
Update - full disclosure:
Re-reading this post today, I realized I had only searched for "graphic novel without pictures." However, a search for "graphic novel without the pictures" (that ignores Sharp Teeth references) only nets a few more results:
In a parent's guide to children's books discussing Quantum Prophecy, described in brief as "Comic-book style superhero action; moral dilemmas, some driven by visions of the future."
In a review of An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire, a collection of poetry described as having "cartoon-like imagery."
In a customer review on Amazon of The Doomsday Brunette, a book about "genetically engineered superwomen."
In a customer review on B&N of The Traveler, in which the book's action sequences are compared to Kill Bill and V for Vendetta.
In a personal remembrance of having read Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny over thirty years before.
All of these seem to support my initial response.
There was one different take. In a blog review of The Plot to Save Socrates, the reviewer notes the author's spare writing and lack of descriptions, and uses the graphic novel metaphor as negative criticism.
So, is this a mostly useless little phrase, then?